There was a person from Lafayette of historic significance who has gone virtually unnoticed: Christiana Gordon Smith. If you were to Google her name, you would find only nine results. Her name is not mentioned in any Civil Rights Museum. Every day, hundreds of students and professors unknowingly pass by her portrait that is prominently displayed in the Edith Garland Dupré Library. Yet, in 1956, Christiana G. Smith became the first black student to graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL).
To put Christiana’s accomplishment in perspective, that same year a screaming, rock-throwing mob at the University of Alabama, threatened its first black student, Autherine Lucy. After three days of violent rioting, the university expelled Lucy, saying it was for her own safety. Based on my preliminary research, it appears that Christiana G. Smith was the first black undergraduate student to graduate from any integrated public university in the south, which is an amazing historical accomplishment.
My intention was to write about Christiana this month. Unfortunately I did not find enough publicly published information to do her story justice. At some point I plan to recount Christiana’s courageous odyssey in detail, but for now, I will examine the untold story behind hers: how ULL became the first public university in the deep south to become racially integrated.
Clara D. Constantine, along with three other unsung heroes, helped pave the way for Christiana G. Smith’s accomplishment. These four black students attempted to enroll at ULL on September 15, 1953, but were turned away. University President, Dr. Joel Fletcher, told them, “Sorry, but it (ULL) is an all white college.” After an unsuccessful appeal to the State Board of Education, on January 4, 1954 the NAACP filed a class action suit on their behalf, Constantine v. Southwestern Louisiana Institute (as ULL’s name at the time). The suit stated that the policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment because Louisiana had built regional colleges for the convenience of white students, but had not provided comparable institutions in the same geographical areas for blacks. Black students in Lafayette would be forced to bear the additional expense of room, board and transportation to either Southern University or Grambling.
On July 16, 1954, two months after Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that ULL could not deny admission to the four named students or “any other Negro citizen of the state.” Then on September 10, 1954, these four black students enrolled at ULL, making it the first integrated college in the south. Remarkably, that fall approximately 75 black students successfully enrolled without incident. The second year brought even more black students, many of them transfers. This type of peaceful transition was not the case in much of the south.
Racial integration in the early 1960’s was met with notoriously truculent opposition. We recount the 1961 integration of the University of Georgia because it occurred in the midst of riots and tear gas. The story of the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 is remembered for the 2,000 students that rioted and two were killed while protesting the admission of one black student, James Meredith. The picture of Governor George Wallace blocking the door of the University of Alabama while defiantly declaring “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” is familiar to us all.
How is it that we remember these poor examples of integration, but we fail to remember ULL’s? I would suggest that it is because ULL’s integration happened without any major incidents that it has largely been forgotten. Everyone notices failure, but things proceeding smoothly often go unnoticed. ULL’s story is one that is worthy of being retold because in comparison to other attempts at integration, ULL’s was an unrivaled triumph.
To be fair, ULL’s integration was not an unqualified success. No one put out the welcome mats for the new students. Black students were limited to where they could congregate on campus. They were not permitted to live in the dorms and they did not eat in the dining hall. The four courageous students who paved the way for integration knew full well that as named litigants in a lawsuit, they may have to pay a personal price. Sadly, because of the harsh treatment they received, they all gave up pursuing their education at ULL. Yet, in comparison to integration at other southern universities, ULL’s integration was an extraordinary success.
So why was it that ULL’s integration worked in the 1950’s, while ten years later integration at other southern universities led to violence?
It took committed leadership. Unlike many of his counterparts, President Joel Fletcher encouraged full cooperation from the outset. Instead of fanning the flames of racial discord, he immediately made preparations for a peaceful and successful integration. He toured the state, calling on influential citizens to help make ULL’s transition a smooth one. He established campus human relations councils of faculty and students to address the problems that black students faced. After one of the first student council meetings, Dean Glynn Able informed him that a professor had made the black students move to the back of the classroom. Fletcher responded, “Tell the black students that ten minutes from now that problem will be resolved.” At the next human council relations meeting, Dean Able asked the black students if the issue had been resolved. He was told, “Yes sir!”
Fletcher’s committed leadership generated trust. When there is trust, people are willing to work together. When Dean Able was informed that one black student wanted to go out for the cheerleading squad, he told the black student leaders that it was too early in the process. Dean Able told them that at this time it would cause unnecessary trouble for everybody. Because they trusted the leadership, the black student leaders agreed to work together with the administration. That the two sides came together, trusted each other and were able to work together virtually guaranteed their success.
As we continue down this road of reconciliation, we need to learn lessons from our past. From Clara D. Constantine we learn to have courage to stand for justice despite the personal cost. Although we may not enjoy the fruits of our own labor, our courageous actions will pave the way for others. From Dr. Joel Fletcher we learn that leaders must lead with integrity and must use their influence to get everyone in the community to work together. Good leaders not only pull together their own constituents, but pull together everyone. No doubt, Dr. Fletcher’s actions were not met with the approval of everyone in the white community, but leading with integrity means we do what is right, not what is popular. It is only when we can all come together that our deep social problems will be solved.
To make real progress, we must learn to love each other and trust each other. Love and trust come from listening to each other and learning to work together towards a shared goal. Instead of polarizing people and forcing them to choose sides, we must find the common ground.
Instead of focusing on our society’s problems, we must focus on the solutions. Then, as our solutions quietly take hold overtime, we will forget that there had ever been a problem in the first place.