Dr. Raphael Cassimere Jr. spent nearly 40 years in the classrooms of the University of New Orleans, teaching American colonial history, American constitutional history and African-American history.
But the historian also made history. He led the city’s NAACP Youth Council during crucial years of the civil rights movement. And in 1971, he became the first black instructor at the school, then called Louisiana State University in New Orleans.
Last month, Cassimere, 75, sat down and talked about the history he’s seen and made for a new civil rights oral-history project launched by the Historic New Orleans Collection.
In the interview, Cassimere told curator Mark Cave that for a long time he was bothered that two (out of 37) students walked out of his class the first day and told the department chairman that they were transferring “for obvious reasons.” But another memory from that time also stuck with him:
“I was walking to class later in the semester and there were two maintenance people, and they had been watching. Nobody had announced that I’d be teaching. One man said, ‘I told you that he was teaching that class.’”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m teaching the class.’ ”
To Cassimere, that incident told him that his professorship was important not only for him and for students but also for the college’s other black employees.
The following year, the university hired several other black instructors, he told Cave. “I know there was somebody in biology, a couple of people in education and other fields. It was a very exciting period. ... I was very optimistic about race relations at UNO.”
Cave and fellow curator Eric Seiferth are leading efforts to interview participants at 11 key civil rights locations in the city, as part of the new project, financed by a $23,360 grant from the National Park Service. They hope that the oral histories can be used as part of school curricula and can spur renewed interest in the city's historic civil rights sites.
Altogether, the Park Service awarded $7.7 million in grants, including two much larger Louisiana grants that will be used for historic structures with civil rights ties.
In New Orleans, the Leona Tate Foundation received $500,000 to establish a civil rights museum in McDonogh 19, the former Lower 9th Ward school that a 6-year-old Tate integrated in 1960 along with classmates Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne. In Lafayette, the Holy Rosary Institute, an early pioneer in the education of black students, received $450,000 to stabilize a main building.
It’s critical to get memories of the civil rights movement recorded now, when even the teenage protesters of decades ago have reached their 70s.
As part of a separate effort, local students will soon have access to a number of oral histories from that era through the Amistad Research Collection at Tulane University.
Next year, an interactive educational resource called “Amistad on the Go” will be rolled out to schools as part of the Louisiana Digital Library, said Christopher Harter, Amistad’s head of library and reference services. Amistad’s archive includes recordings made by historian Kim Lacey Rogers, who interviewed dozens of activists during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Historic New Orleans Collection plans to collect about 30 individual interviews with people directly involved in the civil rights movement in New Orleans, the scene of the Deep South’s first school integrations and of arrests after a lunch-counter sit-in that became a U.S. Supreme Court case.
In addition, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in New Orleans, and hundreds of college students were trained in the city before taking Freedom Ride buses and trains to Mississippi and elsewhere.
“But the (civil rights) history in the city is overlooked,” said Seiferth, who thinks it’s partly because New Orleans, despite ugly demonstrations seen nationwide on TV, didn’t experience the level of violence and disruption as cities like Little Rock, Ark., and Birmingham, Ala.
In his interview, Cassimere told Cave that his earliest forms of protest were on the city’s segregated buses and streetcars, where, at age 13 or 14, he would sometimes flip around the movable wooden sign that said where “colored” passengers could sit. He would turn it to face the other direction, so that he didn’t have to look at it.
“One of the things I remember (is how) my mother would sometimes go to town with one of the white neighbors, and they would be talking at the bus stop, get on the bus, my mother behind the screen, the neighbor in front of the screen," he said. "I often wondered if they realized the ridiculousness of that, but I guess because it had been so ingrained they accepted it — didn’t think very much about it.”
But, like most oral histories, Cassimere’s interview was wide-ranging and also included observations about how civil rights gains and protests affected his everyday life.
He talked about national baseball — “My daddy used to be a Tigers fan, you know, going back to Ty Cobb, but then when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, most blacks became Dodgers fans” — and local baseball: “I think about 1956, the editor of The Louisiana Weekly suggested that blacks boycott the Pelicans (baseball team) because of the segregated seating, and so, I think we probably stopped going then.”
In his interview, Cassimere bragged about the number of civil rights activists who came from his high school, Joseph S. Clark. And he talked about how he and other black students at an “integrated” LSUNO couldn’t attend dances and how the school canceled a theater performance when a black student won a leading role.
He also described in detail the barriers that black people faced in registering to vote in the 1960s: “One of the trick questions was to calculate your age to the day, and if you were off one day, you failed.”
After years of calculating, Cassimere became a pro at doing the math in his head. “I am now 75 years, four months and 13 days,” he told Cave.