Written by: Guest Contributor
Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano
It has been fifty years since Tulane University desegregated and the first black students enrolled in classes on the Uptown campus, ending the 129-year policy that denied the access of higher education at Tulane to black Americans. To commemorate and raise awareness about this anniversary Carolyn Barber-Pierre, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, arranged for five of the first black students on campus to speak at Tulane and have the opportunity to interact with students.
Tulane is located in New Orleans, a city that has had a majority black population since around 1730, just after it was founded as a colonial outpost by the French. Yet only in the last half of the twentieth century was legislation enforced to end the long history of marginalization inflicted on people of African descent. It is important to remember and acknowledge our ugly history of race-based discrimination – and commemorate policy-based solutions that push back on it – to ensure that the future does not reflect the past. The anniversaries of these historical events addressing race-based structural barriers serve as important markers to assess what progress that has been made.
When the first black students started classes at Tulane in February of 1963, they did not face the violence that students integrating other Southern universities encountered, such as the experience of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962. However this does not mean that the majority white faculty and student body at Tulane welcomed the new students with open arms. Inequity is not always as obvious as a racially exclusive policy or violent suppression.
The first black students returned to campus for the forum on the desegregation of Tulane on February 27th, 2013 to an audience of over 200 people, mostly comprised of current students. The speakers introduced themselves: Dr. Barbara Guillory Thompson was one of the two complainants in the desegregation case against Tulane in 1962; Judge Edwin Lombard was one of the first African American men enrolled in the undergraduate program; Dr. Deidre Dumas Labat was the first African American woman enrolled at Newcomb College. Although their experience at Tulane had not been anywhere near as brutal as that of James Meredith, racism is experienced on many levels that are not always as blatant as violent resistance. The first black students used a lot of humor as they recounted their experiences at Tulane half a century ago and laughter flowed through the audience.
However, humor was used in explanation of what must have been an extremely difficult and uncomfortable experience. Since the students were in a great minority on campus, they felt the pressure of being the “first” students at Tulane. The lack of black people in any faculty or authoritative positions meant that the students found the most support in the people working in campus services. Although they shared their experiences with humor, the participants were telling a larger story that black students did not feel accepted by their white peers.
Judge Lombard organized the AACT (African American Congress at Tulane) to help black students advance when they were not able to take advantage of the tutoring services open to fraternities. Dr. Labat had transferred from Dillard, a historically black university, and had a miserable experience as she struggled to fit in with her fellow students who often pretended that she was not there. Dr. Thompson shed light on the injustice of Tulane’s admission policies that bent the provisions set aside by Paul Tulane in his letter of donation, which stipulated that the money was for the education of white males. The presence of females and non-white international students, while black students were denied entry, showed that Tulane interpreted the mandate of “for white males” to mean “not black,” a fact that eventually set the basis for the court case leading to desegregation.
Based on the discussion that took place at the event, I was really disappointed the next day to find a report in Tulane’s New Wave magazine titled “Black alumni recall combating racial prejudice with humor.” The author offered descriptions of the event such as:
“As questions from a full audience… probed for tales of adverse experiences during their matriculation, all three agreed that their negative memories were few.”
And: “The individuals who most welcomed the first black students to campus were those who looked like them.”
The article ended with, “Near the end of the evening, Labat… shared her thoughts about the state of the university today, ‘As I look at this crowd and see the diversity…’”
I could not believe that the author had attended the same event that I had attended and really listened to what the speakers and audience had said. In the final statement of the article there is no mention that directly following Labat’s assertion of the diversity of the audience, a student stood up and stated that the audience did not reflect the actual composition of the student body or faculty at Tulane. The author did not mention that Labat’s comments also sparked up an important debate about the presence of black students on campus today, where a current black student stated that she actually shared many of the same feelings and experiences of the first black students at Tulane, over five generations before her.
Since the project to raise awareness about the 50th anniversary of Tulane was launched it has been received by some with criticism. The Facebook page that was created to raise awareness about the event received comments such as, “I don’t even understand why the school is celebrating ‘desegregation.’” While there is a critical difference between mandated segregation and a lack of integration, the sentiment of this student seems to question the progress Tulane has made since desegregating fifty years ago.
The number of African Americans enrolled in Tulane’s undergraduate program is small – just about 5% when only including full-time enrolled undergraduate students (calculated by not including the students in the School of Continuing Studies).
In highlighting the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Tulane, we need to examine what progress has been made to ensure that black students have access to higher education at Tulane. This year we are hoping to initiate that conversation and evaluation as part of our commemoration of the 50th anniversary. Upcoming events include a screening of a full length documentary about the desegregation of the University, as well as an exhibit that looks both backwards at desegregation and forward to where we are today. To get involved, you can contact me or join the conversation on facebook.
Leah Jaques is a visiting student from the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK where she is pursuing a double major in Political Science and American History. She was the media intern at the AJC Project in Spring of 2013 and is a Media Fellow for the summer of 2013. Leah is producing a full length documentary on the desegregation of Tulane University and producing the content for an exhibit to be shown in Fall of 2013 about desegregation 50 years ago and diversity and inclusion today. You can find a preview of the documentary here.