By: Laila Perrier
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, along with representatives from the Louisiana Office of Tourism and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, unveiled the ninth marker along the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail on March 2.
The presentation was held at the former bookstore building on 210 E. St. Mary Blvd. on UL Lafayette’s campus. Reporter Norman Robinson welcomed those in attendance and kicked off the remarks for the historic event.
Nungesser said when he was first elected, he traveled to a tourism conference in Arizona to learn more about what his job entailed. At the conference, he realized that Louisiana did not have a civil rights trail.
“A lady got up from Mississippi, and then a lady got up from Alabama and talked about this incredible civil rights trail. I got up at that conference and then apologized. I said, ‘I just got elected, and I don’t know why, but we don’t have a trail,” said Nungesser. “‘But when I get back to Louisiana I will surely see why not.'”
Dr. Joseph Savoie, UL Lafayette president, said the marker represents the brave students who made history with their admission into UL Lafayette, then named Southwestern Louisiana Institute (SLI).
“By pushing open the institution’s doors and removing a barrier that no student of color would have to face again,” said Savoie.
In September 1953, four African American students, Clara Dell Constantine, Martha Jane Conway, Charles Vincent Singleton and Shirley Taylor tried to enroll in SLI, but were denied due to their race.
According to the Louisiana Office of Tourism: “In January 1954, attorneys Thurgood Marshall and A.P. Tureaud filed a class-action complaint on their behalf. Six months later, a federal court issued a ruling that prohibited the refusal of their admission based on race.”
On Sept. 10, 1954, Southwestern Louisiana Institute became the first all-white college in the South to integrate 76 African American students that include Constantine, Conway, Singleton and Taylor. The process was peaceful, unlike the other Southern schools to follow.
SLI was also the first university to integrate their athletic teams 10 years later, in 1964.
After the remarks, the marker was unveiled by Nungesser and the sister of Constantine, Joyce Constantine Henson.
The unveiling of the ninth marker shows the steps that were taken for black students and people of color to attend the university. Also, it reveals to students the history of the school they are attending and that the process of integration did not happen that long ago.
A crowd of employees, alumni and students of UL Lafayette attended the presentation. Tarron Lewis, a UL Lafayette employee and alumni, said the marker is important because it reveals the university’s significance in the fight for integration to anyone who visits UL Lafayette’s campus.
“Those pillars represent those young people that came here in 1954. I didn’t know that,” said Lewis. “I graduated here with my bachelors, masters, and am currently working on my doctoral degree. I thought it was just a bus stop, this is historic for us.”
Former president of the University Program Council (UPC), Terrence Toomer, was also there. When asked why he decided to come there this morning he said, “To celebrate black history; you never know what the university has done before you got here.”
Amber Felix, assistant director in the dean of students office, said she has learned more about the history of UL Lafayette.
“I knew we were at a predominantly white university before, but I didn’t know about the trailblazers that integrated the school,” she said.
The Louisiana Civil Rights Trail brings together pieces of historic moments from the 1950s and 1960s that placed Louisiana at the center of the civil rights movement. It tells the stories and encounters of people who shaped the start of civil rights in Louisiana.
“These markers are important because we cannot forget the past,” said Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory.