2015 Louisiana Studies Conference Presentation Abstract

“‘just as brutal … but without all the fanfare’: African American Students, Racism, and Defiance during the Desegregation of Southwestern Louisiana Institute, 1954-1964”

Presented by Ruth Foote, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, formerly known as the Southwestern Louisiana Institute, holds the distinction of being the first state-funded college to desegregate in the South. Desegregation occurred in 1954, a year after four African American students filed a lawsuit for admittance, and two months after the landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

For some African American students, the desegregation of Southwestern Louisiana Institute began and ended with the beanies: little caps that adorned the heads of freshman students. So synonymous were the beanies with the freshmen, that some might have considered them the freshman mascot. Such were their significance, the beanies became part of the university’s legacy, netting a coveted spot in the school’s anniversary book on its first 100 years.

Butthere are no photographs of the day that a small group of young African American men who expected the beanies to become part of their freshman legacy after they registered as students in

1960. That was not to be. Instead of having their heads shaved by upperclassmen as was tradition at the time, black students encountered racism, and became pawns, even victims, of a discriminatory educational system that one of them described as brutal. And just like the beanies, their story and the story of others—on that first decade of desegregation at SLI—were never fully told.

Six decades later today, their story begins.