Wednesday, March 19, 2013

University of New Orleans' First African-American Students Return to Campus

More than 300 University of New Orleans faculty, staff and students turned out today to a commemorative reunion and panel discussion designed to honor the University's first African-American students.

Fifty-five years ago, LSUNO became the South's first university to open as a fully integrated institution. Fifty-five African-American students were part of the first class to enroll at the University on Sept. 12, 1958, said UNO Professor of History Michael Mizell-Nelson. Their path was not easy. The students were a tiny minority in a class of 1,500 during the advent of the civil rights movement.

"This time in our country was a time when equality was little more than a word, with little or no associated reality," said President Peter J. Fos in opening remarks. "To those here from that proud 55 today we honor your courage and perseverance and your unstoppable dedication to learning." He told the panelists that "your courage and your personal legacy has made this university what it is and welcome to all students, no matter their race, religion, culture or financial means."

"55th for the 55" was an all-day affair that included a welcome session, luncheon and president's reception for the honorees and their families. The commemorative reunion and panel discussion, sponsored by the UNO Diversity Cabinet, was led by UNO Professor Emeritus of History Raphael Cassimere, who entered LSUNO as a student in 1959 and played a central role in the civil rights movement in New Orleans.

"Today was the first time that some of the University's first black students ate in the cafeteria. In 1958, the [privately run] cafeteria, was not open to black students," Cassimere said as he led a panel of seven African-American alumni of the University's first freshman class in poignant discussion.  "In 1958, however, there was change in the air."

The panelists spoke of fear and stress and extraordinarily difficult experiences, as well as moments of glory.

"Since you were trying to keep me from getting an education, I was determined to continue," said alumnus Harold Fortuney, to applause.

Cassimere spoke of a history class known to be one of the most challenging and feared on campus and said that black students achieved the highest grades in the class, showing any non-believers that they were contenders in the academic game.

"It always takes somebody to turn something around...turn that anger inside out," said alumna Janice Coleman- Sawyer, when asked what helped her to find courage.

The group remembered Llewellyn Soniat, then head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP's) education agenda and one of the city's first black attorneys.

Several panelists said that Soniat was directly responsible for ensuring their education. Soniat made strides in the civil rights movement in the 1950s, Fortuney said, well before the heated unrest that caught national media attention. He cited Soniat as an unrecognized pioneer of the civil rights movement in New Orleans, preceding more commonly recognized civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson and Medgar Evers.

Today, the University of New Orleans is ranked the most ethnically diverse public university in the state, according to a U.S. News and World Report diversity index. The "55th for the 55" celebration was designed to welcome back to campus some of the men and women whose attendance at LSUNO ensured that UNO would open as an integrated university.

Read more about the "55th for the 55" >>