For an Education: Students, Community Fight to Integrate Nicholls
By Cain Madden
To integrate Nicholls, many locals risked their careers and lives so Black students could be at a public university they had every right to attend.
Then known as Francis T. Nicholls State College, Nicholls first put up a fight before integrating in 1963. It was a fight for which the Late Rev. Lloyd Wallace, Clarence “Danny” Brown, both elementary school educators, and others including students like Raymond Ellis were prepared.
But the group had several obstacles to overcome. Alfred Delahaye’s book, “Nicholls State University: The Elkins-Galliano Years,” says Nicholls had a policy that the school’s mission was educating “whites” and Registrar James Lynn Powell and his staff would not give applications to Black people. Black men and women were also facing intimidation tactics from the community, and some worried about being bombed or losing their jobs.
And once on campus, Brown says some of the student body was openly hostile, yelling slurs and throwing cups of ice. Fortunately, Ellis found a tree with a bench where he and his friends could escape to refocus.
Brown, now 90, says the group never sugarcoated the difficulty of integrating Nicholls. But he says the students agreed to endure the worst to create a better world. To get to that point, Wallace, Brown and others had to gain the experience to lead such a revolution.
THE NEED FOR A LOCAL INSTITUTION FOR ALL AND PLAN TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
After his experiences in WWII, Rev. Wallace returned to America and increasingly recognized that Black people were not being treated fairly. Before he ever helped integrate Nicholls, he fought for voting rights and helped register people to vote.
“He stuck his neck out a bit for others,” says Jacqueline Malcolm (MEd ‘72), Rev. Wallace’s daughter. “I remember my grandmother being so afraid because of the things he would do, and she would just be fighting him because she thought he was going to get himself killed. But he always thought he did not see us represented enough, and he was prepared to fight for it.”
Malcolm says her father handled himself in a manner in which she believed he would be safe.
“As a youngster, you don’t think about that,” she says. “You couldn’t because back then grown folks didn’t let youngsters know everything that was going on. It was ‘grown folks business.’ I only knew that it was going on, but not the whole story. I guess I thought my dad was invincible. He just acted that way.”
When Wallace was growing up, Black schools in Thibodaux only went to the 8th grade, and he had to finish high school and college in Baton Rouge. He then had to leave Louisiana to get his graduate degree.
“I think that would be one of the reasons he wanted to be involved,” says his younger daughter Beatrice Lawrence. “Before integration, people who wanted to go to college had to leave Thibodaux, instead of being able to go to Nicholls, right in their backyard.”
Brown says Rev. Wallace, who was principal at Kent Hadley Elementary School, was the right person to lead the efforts to integrate Nicholls.
“Lloyd was very energetic in trying to serve as a catalyst for things,” he says.
Much of the efforts to integrate in the state began with the Louisiana Education Association, which had changed its name from the Louisiana Colored Teachers Association. In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the organization shifted its goal toward public school integration.
Wallace and Brown had been among the LEA catalysts to integrate the Lafourche schools.
“The superintendent was very professional,” Brown says. “But he looked at me, and he said, after discussion of why the schools should be integrated, ‘Brown, the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.’ I looked and said, ‘Mr. (W.J.) DeFelice, you are right, but if I don’t get on the other side of the fence, I’d never know.’
“People at the time always said on race issues, ‘Well, don’t we get along?’ Certainly, we get along, but do we get along as equals? That is the important thing. I don’t want anyone to give me anything, but I want an equal opportunity to achieve. We didn’t have that.”
“Before integration, people who wanted to go to college had to leave Thibodaux, instead of being able to go to Nicholls, right in their backyard.”
– Beatrice Lawrence
With the fall of 1963 approaching, Nicholls was the last public university in south Louisiana to be segregated.
That year, the LEA started meeting to create a specific plan to integrate the school.
At the Thibodaux Masonic Lodge, Wallace and 11 other community leaders met with 21 prospective students. Delahaye’s book says the students who were chosen were strong academically, responsible and not believed to be easily intimidated.
Brown and Wallace advised the students to be peaceful and to not escalate tensions.
Brown says they went into the meeting telling the students that once they took Nicholls to court, the school could not ignore their applications.
“We were trying to make it as easy as we could for them, but we didn’t go into it telling any of the students that this was going to be easy,” he says. “To get the same kind of breaks to get ahead and to gain meaningful employment and all of the other things people do, like vote, Black people had to fight, and they didn’t have much to fight with.”
The group also kept the meetings as secret as possible to avoid repercussions.
“If it had gotten out early what we were doing, I think we would have lost our jobs,” Brown says. “And we were prepared to do just that.”
With advice from national civil rights leader Thurgood Marshall, the plan was laid out. Brown, who could pass for white, would obtain the registration forms. The students would fill them out and deliver them. If they could not deliver them in person, they would submit them by certified mail. Once the applications were officially filed, Louisiana’s leading civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud could submit a suit in the Louisiana federal court in New Orleans.
Once the courts ordered Nicholls to integrate, then came the next problem, getting the students there. Some in Thibodaux walked, but for Houma students, buses taking white students to Nicholls would not allow Black students. With that, the NAACP got involved. Some members drove students to Nicholls, and after plans were made to integrate the “white buses” a separate bus was commissioned to take Black students to the school.
THE PLAN PUT IN ACTION
Following the advice of those who had integrated what is now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the group had a plan. It was time to execute it.
Brown says when he arrived at Elkins Hall on Sept. 3, 1963, he suspected he might have arrived during an afternoon meeting because of the number of people gathered in a room on the way to the registrar’s office. And in fact, that was a meeting in which Powell was in attendance.
Only a young lady staffing the registrar’s office was between him and those applications.
“I told her I was from Lafayette, and I was there to pick up some applications for some youngsters who would like to register, and I offered to bring them applications,” he says. “She hesitated and said she could put them in the mail. I told her that would not suffice because classes were about to start, and that I was in a hurry and just about ready to head back to Lafayette.”
With that, he had the applications in hand and walked out. As he was leaving, he says the people who were meeting stood up and looked to see what he was doing.
“I suspect some of them may have known who I was,” says Brown, who was at the time a teacher at C.M. Washington Elementary School.
Later, according to Delahaye’s book, Galliano admitted he could see the writing on the wall for integration when he saw Brown leave.
“When I was coming up, it would take almost a revolution to have a white youngster come up to a black man and call them sir in public. That was, to me, a drastic change. I was very impressed with the visit to the campus.”
— Clarence Brown
“He was right,” Brown says. “Within the next couple of days, we were in court.”
Before they went to court, eleven of the twelve applicants entered the registrar’s office on Sept. 4 to submit applications for admission. Powell, following instructions, informed the applicants that he had to refuse because it was contrary to policy. Powell stuck to the same answer when he was asked why and asked the applicants to leave. Two hours later he had received 10 applications by certified mail with instructions to hold onto them.
On Friday, Sept. 13, during Edward Baker, et al., v. Francis T. Nicholls State College, et al in the federal court in New Orleans, the Nicholls team presented Act 280, where the state had designated Nicholls as a four-year college for “white persons.” However, the judge ruled in favor of the applicants.
“They had to honor the applications,” Brown says. “It had already been decreed that Nicholls and other public colleges had to integrate, but some of them decided they were not going to give up without some resistance. They would say no one was applying. Well, we couldn’t.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 17, 1963, seven Black applicants enrolled at Nicholls accompanied by a U.S. Marshal and the president of the Houma chapter of the NAACP. Three Black students registered on Wednesday, and nine more on Friday.
In the following days, Galliano reportedly had a cross burned in front of his home and the school received a bomb threat.
THE STUDENTS ARRIVE ON CAMPUS
The first seven Black students were journalism major Edward Thomas Baker of Thibodaux, speech education major Sandra Anne Hawkins of Donaldsonville, English major Louise Mae Jones of Houma, speech education major Rudolph Parker of Houma, home economics major Julia Ann Robertson of Thibodaux, and two-year general business majors Doris and Lois Young of Thibodaux.
“All of the kids were just wonderful,” Brown says. “It was very successful, in terms of them doing their job and getting the work done. They did find it a little rocky, in the beginning. Not with staff, but some kids just didn’t appreciate them being there. They continued going and weathered the insults that were thrown their way.”
On the whole, Brown says the Black students indicated that the student body treated them fairly. However, a minority of the white students were not happy to see the Black students present and let them know.
The late Raymond Ellis of Thibodaux was the first Black graduate from Nicholls in 1966. Because he was one of the students to enroll, he did not get into classes with his friends.
Ellis began at Southern University, but because it was closer to home, he enrolled at Nicholls to complete his social studies education.
“He had some good days and some bad days,” says his wife, Carrie Ellis. “Sometimes when he came home, he was very upset concerning his treatment. We talked to him and tried to keep him on the bright side.”
His bad treatment would often start when he was walking to school, as his white peers driving by would yell racial slurs at him.
“He kept on walking,” his daughter Lanitra Spurlock says. “He had to be brave. To walk alone like that. It had to take a lot of courage.”
His other daughter Shenelle Ellis says when he got to the classroom, students would say “It is getting dark in here.”
Ellis had to sit in the back of his classrooms, and one day, he walked into his economics class to find violent racial messages written on his desk.
“He was upset about that, and stayed after to talk to the professor,” says Carrie.
But the instructor had told him he could not do anything about it.
Then when he and his friends attempted to enter the student union to eat, some of the other students would throw ice cups and spit on them. Ellis found an oak tree with a bench near where the bus to Houma would pick up other Black students. They ate their brown-bag lunches under the tree.
“It was like a comfort zone for him,” Shenelle says. “I can only imagine going into a classroom, and being a minority and experiencing all of the challenges he had to go through. It was nice to have a place he could go and be around people he felt comfortable with and not being ridiculed. It helped keep him motivated and focused.”
"It was nice to have a place he could go and be around people he felt comfortable with and not being ridiculed. It helped keep him motivated and focused."
– Shenelle Ellis
Shenelle says some white students attempted to ruin that sanctuary. One day, they arrived at the oak tree and it had a sign on it that read, “N—– Tree.” It did not work, though. Decades later, when Ellis would visit the campus, he would always visit that tree and called it special.
After that first year, the environment became less hostile. Malcolm started school at Florida A&M, but transferred to Nicholls to complete her degree in the mid-1960s.There were still problems then, she says, as some white students and professors could be cold.
“Some of the professors would ignore you if you had any questions, but they could not ignore it if you made the grades,” she says. “I had one professor who taught the shorthand class who could be very ugly. He was not very nice at all.”
Over the decades, Black students became further integrated in the campus, being elected to homecoming court, serving on the Student Government Association and forming campus organizations. Shenelle went to Nicholls as both an undergrad and a graduate, earning her master’s in special education.
“When I reflect on my experiences there, I never experienced any type of racism, or things my dad experienced,” she says. “I think it has changed tremendously, in a good way.”
Brown says after helping Nicholls integrate, people looked at him with suspicion, and he never lost that fear that he would lose his job. He decided to continue his career away from home in Seattle, and when he told DeFelice, he got the impression that his leaving was a sigh of relief for the superintendent.
“I was just proud that things worked out in a way that people could proceed and get the opportunities they deserved,” he says.
Brown also agrees Nicholls has changed. After retiring, he returned from Seattle to live in Thibodaux, and he says he attended a Fletcher Lecture before the pandemic.
“Well the campus has grown so much,” he says. “I was asking youngsters that I would see where the building the lecture I was attending was? The first thing the youngsters would say was, ‘Sir, can I help you?’
“When I was coming up, it would take almost a revolution to have a white youngster come up to a Black man and call them sir in public. That was, to me, a drastic change. I was very impressed with the visit to the campus.” ■