NEW ORLEANS — When the first African-American students walked through the gates of the University of New Orleans (then LSUNO) in 1958, it wasn’t pretty.
At an event held Tuesday honoring the 55 African-Americans who were the first to attend the school 55 years ago, the seven panelists described an atmosphere in which they were threatened, called names and made to feel unwelcome and unwanted not only by fellow students but also the faculty. Many left after a year or two, saying the hostile atmosphere was just too much to take, and dropped out for other opportunities, including the opening of Southern University at New Orleans in 1959.
LSUNO was the first public university in the South to open its doors as a fully integrated institution, on the heels of local lawyer A.P. Tureaud filing suit in federal court to allow black students into public universities on behalf of the NAACP.
It wasn’t just the local students and faculty who protested the integration. According to an article that appeared in The Louisiana Weekly on Sept. 20, 1958, the LSU Board of Supervisors issued the following statement that read, in part: “This board wishes to point out that any Negro student whose enrollment is forced upon this university, enters as an unwanted matriculant.”
Tuesday’s panel was moderated by Raphael Cassimere Jr., who started at UNO as an undergraduate in 1959, was the president of the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council from 1960-1966 and became a professor of history at UNO in 1971.
Cassimere called the time a challenging one, but also an exciting one with a feeling of change in the air. “We may not have come as far as we need to go, but we certainly have come a long way,” he said.
UNO President Peter Fos said “we all owe a debt of gratitude” to the 55 students.
Cassimere first asked the panelists how they found out about LSUNO being open, and open to African-Americans.
Janice Coleman-Sawyer said she had already been accepted at Dillard but had to make a difficult choice because she had been asked to be a part of Tureaud’s lawsuit.
“I was shocked,” Coleman-Sawyer said. “I knew I was going to receive threats from students, but I didn’t know it would also come from faculty. The faculty insulted us in front of the class.” She said she was very angry when she left but was encouraged to turn that anger into something positive. “They tried to destroy me, but they didn’t, and I got my master’s in social work.”
Brenda Holman-Allen said the faculty refused to put her name on the attendance rolls, and the administration turned a deaf ear. “We had no recourse,” she said.
Dorothy Caufield described having the bar she worked at targeted by people from the university throwing eggs and tomatoes, and shooting pellets. She said she dropped out after a semester and a half. “Later I bought that bar; I own that bar,” Caufield said to loud cheers.
Gloria Stokes-Johnson said she was determined to get an education, and family friends and church members helped her to come up with the money for tuition and books. “When you have a dream and a goal, no one can stop you from accomplishing that dream and goal,” she said. Stokes-Johnson said she stayed for three semesters, and in that time there was just one instructor who reached out to her. Others didn’t acknowledge her presence in class and wouldn’t give her papers back, Stokes-Johnson said.
Priscilla Metoyer said she didn’t have the funds to attend Dillard or Xavier University. At LSUNO, “The beginning days were very, very difficult. Some of the memories bring tears,” she said, but added that the experience taught her to prepare for life’s adversity and challenges and helped to shape her identity.
Joseph Narcisse described his dream of going to college from a young age, and said when he received a letter of rejection from LSUNO, he was thrilled just to see his own name on a letter with the name of a college. “I don’t know who put my name on the list, but I thank them forever,” Narcisse said, as he had not even applied.
Narcisse said he took the letter to Tureaud, who assured him he would be able to attend. Weeks later, Narcisse said he received a letter of acceptance. Narcisse described the first day — his shoes shined and shirt starched — riding the bus down Elysian Fields Avenue.
Narcisse said he was comforted by the presence of other black students on the bus, but when they all exited at the stop near Dillard, he said the bus driver looked at him expectantly. As they neared LSUNO, he described hearing shouts that sounded like a pep rally. But he soon found out the noise was coming from were white students lining the road, shouting racial epithets.
But despite the hostility, Cassimere and the panelists also described the many white students who were indifferent, the few who were friendly and the few who reached out to help. They described teachers who stood out in their memories for encouraging them and taking the time to help them, as many who attended both public and private high schools found themselves unprepared for the rigor of college academics.
Asked if they regretted leaving early, Holman-Allen said her answer was a “resounding no.” She said at that time she was “young and aggressive and had a lot of hatred.” I may not be sitting here today had I stayed, Holman-Allen said. Now at 73, Holman-Allen said there are things “I still will not let anybody do to me.”
Narcisse said he’d wanted to finish what he started but missed the stringent academic requirements by one point.
“I learned that you don’t give up, you keep fighting until you get it,” he said.
Cassimere noted that more than 70 percent of the total student body did not return after the first semester due to the requirements.
Asked by an audience member for advice to pass on to the younger generation, Cassimere said, “Don’t be so quiet.”
Stokes-Johnson advised setting goals and learning more about African-American history.
Metoyer said “Be aware of diversity, be more accepting. Listen and learn from others. It will take you a long way.”
Holman-Allen urged young people to “remember the value of education and remember the shoulders you stood on to get to where you are — the struggle continues.”
Narcisse appealed to young people to “work hard to continue to contribute to making a better life for all of us.”
The biggest takeaway, said Cassimere, is “Don’t ever treat anyone — regardless of color, religion or ethnicity — the way these people were treated 55 years ago.”