Generations of students and faculty have entered and left Southern University by driving over the Harding Boulevard overpass. It is an indelible part of the campus. And this year, "The Hump" turned 50.

“That overpass, it’s so iconic for us,” said Robyn Merrick, vice president for external affairs and university relations with the Southern University System.

Especially for those who remember what it was like before the overpass was built.

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For decades, to get to the campus required crossing a railroad track. Often long and often slow, the trains essentially shut Southern off from the rest of the world until they passed.

“It was a big problem,” said 75-year-old Pat Flood, a 1969 Southern graduate. “For medical access to the campus, you had to wait. If a student was ill, you had to wait until the train passed in a lot of cases to get over the tracks.

“The same for meals. If students wanted to go off campus, there was a little cafe on Swan Street called Bradford’s Café, where students used to go to get sandwiches. A lot of time, students were standing there at the track waiting for the train to pass.”

It was one of many issues that upset Southern students in the 1960s, when the civil rights struggle had them focused not only on national concerns but on their campus, said former Congressman William Jefferson, who was student government president in 1969.

Faculty pay was lower. Streets, if paved, had potholes. There were no streetlights. 

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And, of course, there was the railroad track, which students saw as a practical and symbolic issue. In many Deep South cities, railroad tracks were the demarcation between Black and White, rich and poor.

“It felt like we’re over here penned in behind these tracks,” Jefferson said. “There was an emotional aspect of it, too.”

In 1969, emotions were high at Southern, and demonstrations held May 12-13 resulted in 18 arrests, a truck set ablaze and injuries to 35 students and two East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s deputies. On May 13, Jefferson and about a dozen other Southern students met Gov. John McKeithen at his office to present a list of demands.

McKeithen, who tried unsuccessfully to cajole the group by inviting them to sit in his chair, was noncommittal but agreed to visit the campus on May 19, said Jefferson.

At his invitation, Jefferson joined him in his car, and they drove around campus, the student leader pointing out the shortcomings.

Jefferson said McKeithen tried to press his buttons, alternately asking the young man about his family then reminding him that, as governor, he could have Jefferson expelled from school, ruining his plans to attend Harvard Law School. But the visit, which included the Harding Boulevard entrance, seemed to make an impression.

“When he left there, he was generally supportive of what we were asking him to do, because I think he saw the deficits between where our school was standing and where LSU was standing,” Jefferson said. “Some of them were quite stark, so it was undeniable.

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“We were naive enough to believe that we were exercising some real influence,” Jefferson said. “I guess we did, in a way.”

All of the students’ demands were eventually met, he said. And construction on the overpass began in November 1969. It opened on June 4, 1971.

“It was a big deal,” said former District Court Judge Freddie Pitcher, who got his undergraduate and law degrees at Southern and was in law school when the overpass opened. “There was no hassle getting in and off campus. It was hailed as a big thing.”

As time passed, its shape and location made the overpass a landmark, with its SU blue pedestrian railings and painted Jaguar paw prints that run the median.

“Everybody refers to it as The Hump. ‘What’s going on over The Hump?’” Merrick said. “When Stump Mitchell was our football coach, the fans were all saying, ‘It’s time to run Stump over The Hump’ because he wasn’t winning.”

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Running over The Hump is popular for those trying to stay in shape, so much so that when Kaylin and Kenny Ricard got married on Oct. 13 at Bethany Church in Baker, they wanted to celebrate it in a unique way.

As a track athlete at Scotlandville Magnet High School, Kaylin had crossed the overpass on countless training runs, and she and Kenny continued to run there for fitness. So, after they said “I do,” they and the wedding party drove to campus, where the newlyweds ran across the overpass.

“People jump the broom. We jumped 'The Hump,'” Kaylin said. “We just thought it would be a great way to solidify our marriage and our vows by crossing over to a new life together at a place that is so symbolic for both of us it being at Southern. … It’s a really important place for us.”


Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.