University of New Orleans (UNO):
The Birth of a University; Rebirth of a City

Dr. Raphael Cassimere, Jr. 2008

[Founders Day Address delivered by Dr. Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Seraphia D. Leyda Professor-Emeritus, University of New Orleans, October 17, 2008]

Thank you, Russ, for your kind words of introduction. Russ didn't mention that in 1967 on the first day of that class, two white students walked out and demanded a transfer. The department chair, Larry Leder, asked for a reason, to which they replied "for obvious reasons," but he refused their request, "for obvious reasons." I took their departure as a personal rejection, and it bothered me for a long time. Then about 15 years ago it suddenly occurred to me that while two students left, 35 stayed, including, Russell Trahan. Russ, I'm so glad that you stayed.

Chancellor Ryan, Chancellor O'Brien, Members of the Founders Club, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very pleased to be here today among so many friends, some I have not seen for many years.

First, I would like to make this disclaimer: these remarks are non-paid and non political and represent the views of the speaker only. As most of you know this luncheon was originally scheduled for September 5, but was postponed due to Hurricane Gustav. The speech I had planned would have been quite different, but since early September my colleague, Bobby Dupont's On Higher Ground has made its appearance, along with the premiere of UNO Memories, and the special 50th anniversary issue of Legacy. Much of what I would have discussed has been amply covered in each, if not all three of these important new sources. As a result, I have decided to reminisce about the university's early history and its impact on the city of New Orleans. Hence, the title, "UNO: the birth of a university — rebirth of a city."

I want to borrow a phrase, if not coined by Senator Barack Obama, certainly popularized by him, the "Audacity of hope." Obama was not even born when a group of dedicated leaders in metropolitan New Orleans led the groundwork for forming a new public urban university which would be accessible to qualified citizens who lacked the financial means to attend the nearest state-supported school 80 miles upriver. Against overwhelming odds and opposition within and without the city, including leaders of the uptown universities, they would prevail.

They hoped that a low-cost university would help close the gap between the small better educated middle and upper classes and a large poor and undereducated working class, rigidly divided by race and color. The vision was not new, but it came at a crucial time in the city's and state's history. Back then, as well as now, as goes New Orleans, so goes the whole state of Louisiana. For a long time New Orleans had been regarded as the Queen City of the South — a title that made it fat and sassy even as it was being challenged by more progressive cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.

The visionaries, personified by Rene Curry, believed that a low-cost open admissions university could be the catalyst for an economic turnaround for the whole metropolitan region of New Orleans which was slowly beginning to re-disperse itself into neighboring parishes, especially as a result of the construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River and the opening of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.

A major goal of the new school would be to create better trained school teachers who could use the latest and most innovative educational techniques, as well as college trained accountants and book keepers and engineers who could better serve a sluggish business community, greatly in need of revival. All would contribute to a better educated and better paid middle class, which in turn would expand the tax base for much needed services.

While there was enthusiastic support from the working class and many in the middle class, there was lukewarm support to outright opposition from the leaders of the older uptown private universities. An erstwhile key supporter, albeit for a limited commuter college, was Mayor Chep Morrison who enjoyed a reputation as a "Southern reformer." He had undertaken some earlier reforms to the city's infrastructure, including filling in many miles of open canals, constructing a new Civic Center, and modernizing and consolidating rail and air transportation. Morrison gave cautious support for the opening of a commuter branch of LSU which could offer two years of basic preparation before students relocated to Baton Rouge for the remainder of their programs.

Most members of the city's legislative delegation supported the goal, and when supported by Governor Earl K. Long, the dream became a reality in 1956. Long, however, gave more moral than financial support, but his insistence on providing valuable lakefront land for the campus proved beneficial not only in the short run, but for future expansion as well.

By the fall of 1958, an eager administration a youthful and confident faculty and staff was in place to receive a much larger than expected student body. This "audacity of hope" shown by Rene Curry and his cohorts had exceeded expectations when the administration and faculty met in an initial convocation with students and their parents on September 5, 1958.

Those early founders, notwithstanding, did not have a panoramic vision of a university for all New Orleanians. Theirs was a limited goal which included "whites only," the rule, but not the exception for our city fifty years ago. To be sure just a few months earlier New Orleans had just ended racial separation in public transit, but City Park and Audubon Park as well as the public auditorium remained either separated by race, or for use by whites only. At that time such an innocent occurrence of today's interracial luncheon addressed by an African American speaker was unthinkable and may have resulted in mass arrest. And this racial separation was accepted, if not approved by most blacks and whites.

There were other more audacious founders, theretofore unknown, including A.P. Tureaud, Dutch Morial, Harold Fontenette, Llewelyn J. Soniat, and Louise Williams who watched from outside the gates, determined to create a university, which would be diverse and dedicated to educating for life, as well as a profession. These men and women of color advocated not just for an open university without regards to race or color, but an institution which would be a force for change on campus as well as the community in which it existed. They insisted that it could not really be a University of New Orleans unless it was inclusive. And when qualified black applicants were refused admission solely because of race, these founders filed a successful lawsuit to admit any qualified high school graduate.

It is ironic that the first university convocation on September 5, 1958, was the first and last all-white university function, as more than 100 black students enrolled for classes the first semester. Unplanned, unforeseen LSUNO opened classes on a non-segregated bases. It became at once different from Louisiana's other universities, both public and private. Admittedly a few years earlier several other state universities had admitted a few black students into overwhelmingly white student bodies, however, LSUNO's black students accounted for nearly 20% of the school's first semester's enrollment. Almost immediately the new school was treated like a pariah by some, an enigma by others, but an ideal to a few who saw beyond its present status to what it could become in the future.

UNO's early existence resulted largely from its integrated student body, a continuing theme identified by most of the contributors to UNO Prisims, On Higher Grounds, Legacy, and UNO Memories. Early students and faculty alike, almost all who had come out of segregated backgrounds, remarked about the awkward, but eventually successful transition from a segregated to non-segregated environment. Most spoke about living in two separate worlds, their own segregated homes and neighborhoods, and the integrated UNO campus.

The university's difference made it an agent for change for the larger community. Its high academic standards had an immediate impact. It is ironic that prior to the opening of LSUNO, local high schools, public and private, didn't realize the extent of their academic inadequacies. UNO's high flunk out rate the first years exposed that dirty little secret — a secret that apparently had not been discovered by the older existing universities. Local school teachers and administrators were shocked when their best students, including a valedictorian or salutatorian, failed to measure up to the new school's standards with an attrition rate above 40% during the first decade of existence.

In response to the rigorous standards, some schools discouraged their students from applying to UNO. Others, however, used UNO as a measurement stick and improved their curricula to assure that their graduates would be prepared for the challenges the new university offered. In the past, the three local black Catholic high schools had steered most of their students to Xavier University, although an occasional top student gained admission to predominantly white Catholic colleges, such as Marquette, or one of the northern Loyola campuses. Now they began to encourage their top students to enroll at LSUNO.

During much of the first decade UNO was physically isolated and enclosed by a chain link fence along Elysian Fields Avenue which ran from present day Leon C. Simon to Lakeshore Drive. Not only was the new campus different from and separated from its neighboring counterparts, it developed in a manner that took advantage of this isolation. It became an incubator for progressive ideas and progressive ideals would later be introduced into the outside community.

Quickly, academic excellence became a reality as much as the university's motto. Outside supporters and detractors began to say that "you must be smart to make it at UNO." While many students flunked out after a semester or two, those of us who survived maintained an air that bordered on cockiness. Academic excellence became the common denominator which forged a bond between students and faculty alike. Many of those early students who graduated became successful leaders in government, business, and the field of education.

The campus leader throughout those formative years was Homer L. Hitt. I knew Homer fairly well as a student. I remember the first time I met him when I delivered a petition signed by more than 400 students who protested the cancellation of a school play because a black male student had been cast into a leading role. At that time I did not realize how much pressure Hitt faced from his own critics for heading this unpopular integrated school. For many of those critics, not only was UNO an integrated school, but its academic standards had not been compromised, indeed its standards compared favorably with, if not beyond the mother campus in Baton Rouge. As one of the black campus leaders I met with him several times. Had I known about the tremendous pressure he faced, I would have been more sympathetic, but no less forceful in pushing for full social equality for all students.

After Homer's retirement he was offered an office within the History Department complex, an offer which he readily accepted. It was at that time that I got to know him quite well, even rode as a passenger with him, an honor to some, but an unenviable and never to be forgotten experience. Looking back, I think that whenever and wherever Homer learned to drive must have been illegal. He could only be described as a road hog and would have made legendary New York taxi drivers seem like angels.

In any case I often spoke with Hitt about those first years as UNO's leader. Now as a professional historian, I know the importance of evaluating information given many years after the fact, but I did get some keen insights into that time period. I asked about his initial views on the desegregation of the university. He told me that he was at once both apprehensive and intrigued. LSU's President Troy Middleton had partly influenced Hitt into taking the job by flattering him with the prospects of building his own university, but that was before he knew it would be integrated. Once it happened, he said he became intrigued about the possibility of building a successful integrated university, something that had not happened before, north or south.

The prospects of success, he added, were increased by the large number of black students admitted that first year. Earlier attempts at desegregating a token number of black students into white universities made them easy targets for their opponents and some of the black students succumbed to unbearable pressure and withdrew or flunked out. Hitt may have remembered the terrifying experience of Alexander P. Tureaud, Jr. who was admitted as the sole black student to the LSU campus in 1953. Young Tureaud faced continual threats and ostracism from students and faculty alike. He said he fully expected to be killed before the court order which forced his admission was overturned and he left LSU vowing never to return.

Homer explained that he believed that once black students were admitted he had every intention to see that they were treated fairly. Llewelyn J. Soniat related how he and his wife were the only blacks to attend the university's prom in 1964. Hitt welcomed them and insisted that they sit with his wife and him and showed genuine concern for their comfort.

He also explained that an integrated campus provided different challenges, such as when the university opened its university center. It had to find barbers who would cut the hair of black students. I remember that black students wanted to be sure that the barber would indeed provide haircuts to black students so we convinced Mr. Soniat's son, Donald, to be the guinea pig. When he came out unscathed, we were satisfied. Other adjustments had to be made in race relations when black Education majors had to be placed in host schools. Eventually, the Education college decided that all education majors must be assigned to both predominantly black and predominantly white schools, working with faculty members of both races.

To be sure many of the changes undertaken during Hitt's administration resulted more from pressure brought by students, black and white. For example, for the first 22 years Morrison's Cafeteria operated a whites only cafeteria, with a stand up snack bar in another building where black students could eat. I helped to organize a boycott against the snack bar, and when we prevailed upon Atty. Tureaud to threaten legal action if the cafeteria was not desegregated, Hitt ordered Morrison to either serve all students or surrender its lease. Morrison chose the latter and the university closed the cafeteria for about a month and reopened it on an integrated basis.

In 1963, Llewelyn Soniat and I approached the administration about forming a campus chapter of the NAACP. Actually, since I was president of the local NAACP Youth Council, and Soniat was its advisor, we were not very interested in forming another chapter, especially since nearly half of our youth council was composed of UNO students. However, we were both certain that the university would resist and if so, we could include its refusal in an official discrimination complaint. Little did we know the administrators were more than willing for us to form a chapter and happily complied with our request for the necessary forms. Ed Burks, then dean of student services, later told me he had concluded that since black students were not allowed in fraternities or sororities, it would be helpful for them to have an organization of their own. They readily gave us the necessary papers which took us by surprise, but we decided that if there was no opposition to a chapter we didn't need to form one. As a result we didn't form an NAACP chapter until 1967.

I gained some additional insights into Homer's past when the eminent African American historian, John Hope Franklin visited the campus. Coincidentally, Hitt and Franklin matriculated at Harvard at the same time, both graduated with Ph.D's in 1941. At a reception Hitt gave for Franklin, I asked if either had known the other, while enrolled in school. Neither did, although Hitt confessed that he knew there were a small number of black students on campus, but he didn't personally know any of them. Franklin and Hitt both left Harvard for successful careers, but followed different routes.

Hitt returned to LSU, his Alma Mater, where he became a successful academician and later administrator while Franklin's options were limited to black colleges, until when in 1956, he was hired as chairman and the first black member of the history department of Brooklyn College. Franklin observed that despite his prolific publishing career he was not offered a full-time position at any other predominantly white school before he was later hired by the University of Chicago, although he was invited to teach summer school at a number of prominent universities. Franklin congratulated Hitt on founding a successful integrated school, a rarity in the north or south. Virtually, no "white" university had more than even one black faculty member before the sixties, and none had more than a handful of black students.

In 1967 I was awarded a teaching assistantship and as such I was assigned to teach one course. I remember how anxious most of the history faculty was. One of the professors walked me to the classroom and paced outside of the room until he was convinced that nothing would happen. I guess they expected the worse from the students, but except for the withdrawal of two students, who at least did not make a scene, I got along very well with my students. Word pretty quickly spread and I became a sort of hero to all of the black students who very proud of the break through. Indeed, all of the campus's black community shared this sense of pride. I remember coming out of my classroom one morning and overheard one of the two black custodians, who had been observing the class from the outside windows, exclaimed, see, I told you he was teaching the class. Few things in my life have caused me as much pleasure.

At that point UNO had no black professional staff, and only one black secretary had been hired. (In 1965 our history department had hired the first black department secretary, but unfortunately, she left after a month because she received a better offer in her hometown in Lake Charles.) Not until later that semester when I first began to teach, was the first black cashier hired in the cafeteria, and all of the black employees were either custodial or food services workers. Apparently, my appointment led others to believe that they could move up, and over the next several years some of those same employees made vertical transfers to positions with the campus police, or at least became supervisors within food services or custodial services.

Actions taken on UNO's campus affected race relations off campus. For example, UNO students often studied at the main library. Because black and white student ignored the official segregation within the library, eventually the administration gave up and quietly removed all racial signs. UNO integrated its cafeteria before the federal government integrated its facilities in New Orleans or ordered desegregation of interstate transit facilities such as Greyhound bus terminal. My first arrest as a city rights demonstrator came at the City-owned cafeteria which refused services to black customers, including its own employees.

UNO's interracial's gathering was in sharp contrast to segregated interactions in the larger community. Even the biracial committee of black and white leaders, organized to peacefully desegregate public accommodations was actually a bifurcated committee of blacks and whites who met separately and only communicated by two go-betweens. But the racial changes that transformed UNO's campus did not go unnoticed and gradually affected other places. Change, slow and uneven, did come.

The absence of meaningful desegregation throughout the United States was keenly observed by one of my favorite teacher and long-time colleague, Steve Ambrose. Ambrose observed that he had taught at a number of universities, including LSUNO, LSU, the Army War College, and the University of Kansas, but he never had a black colleague until he returned to UNO in 1971, and now there were three black professors in the department.

When I last visited with Steve Ambrose at his home in Mississippi, a few months before his death, we reminisced about changes that we had witnessed at UNO. He reminded me of the trip to Vicksburg that he had planned for our Civil War class during the Spring of 1963. His plan was to take a university station wagon and camp in the federal cemetery. I insisted that I wouldn't go, because an integrated group would be an open target for bigots. He disagreed but I didn't go with the group because I suspected that there could be trouble. About six weeks later Medgar Evers, NAACP Field Director, was assassinated outside of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. About three weeks later I led a small group of NAACP Youth Council members to integrate the bus terminal in Brookhaven, Mississippi. We faced hostility and opposition, but probably not as much if we had included whites with us.

I thought about that trip when Llewelyn Soniat and another young man and I stopped at a Shoney's restaurant in Vicksburg about twenty years later. It was late on a Sunday morning and many customers were coming from church. Except for the black employees we were the only blacks in the place. We were treated courteously and cordially, but basically it was as if we were invisible to the white customers. After eating and waiting to pay our bill I thought how different it would have been some years earlier. I asked my companions, why were white people fighting so hard to keep us out of here? Mr. Soniat who usually had an opinion about almost everything said, "I don't know."

Steve and I talked about how much change had taken place in race relations, not only in New Orleans, but his adopted hometown, Bay St. Louis. He mentioned observing more interracial couples in Bay St. Louis than in New Orleans. And of course, Steve was right. People can change. I often tell my students, don't give up on people because people can change. People can change if they are open-minded and are willing to change.

I remember one of the students in that first class Russ talked about. He was a very respectable young man, but he seemed to be troubled. Near the end of the semester we talked in my office. He was concerned about his views changing. He told me that he believed in equality, but God intended for the races to be separate. I didn't challenge his views, but told him that if he remained at UNO, his views would change. He admitted as much and said he was going to transfer because he didn't want his views to change. I don't know if he left or what happened to him, but I often think of him and say how sad!

I remember another student who admitted that he was in 7th grade when the New Orleans schools were first desegregated and he was part of the mob which screamed at and insulted the three little black girls who entered McDonogh #19 School in the Lower Ninth Ward. He changed and became a charter member of the UNO College chapter, met a young black woman whom he later married and they've been together for more than forty years.

Another student who joined college chapter used to watch me picket Maison Blanche [department store] on Canal Street during the mid sixties. At the time he was a high school student who worked part-time for the president of the company, but he wanted to know why we were picketing. So on his lunch break he would walk up and down and question me about the NAACP. Eventually, he was fired because the president insisted that he couldn't picket his own store. He also became a member of the campus NAACP which was integrated with black and white officers. It organized the first food drive for needy citizens during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. I remember my teacher and good colleague Gerry Bodet, sometimes accompanied by his young children, loading up his station wagon delivering groceries to the needy. Many students began to see faculty differently as a result of their work outside of the classroom.

UNO's high academic standards and isolation caused many to believe that it was cold and uncaring. While it was largely untrue it was a reputation which endures to this day. There may have been some reason for that misconception. I remember when I was a student, Jerah Johnson, who later as department chair, hired me, posted a sign on his door which read: "when this door is closed, do not knock or enter." Well, Jerah was my academic advisor and sometimes when I needed advice, or just wanted to talk, I'd ignore the sign and knock. Invariably, he'd welcome me and sometimes we'd talk for as much as an hour. We both realized that we had much in common. Other students would marvel at my audacity, even more Jerah's acquiescence. Jerah was not only one of my favorite teachers, but also a dear faculty colleague.

Joe Logsdon, was the opposite of Jerah. His door was almost always open to any student about any subject. Joe was actively involved with us in the NAACP on the local and state levels. When Larry Leder brought me to Lehigh with him, he offered Joe a job which he accepted so Joe Logsdon and Larry Leder taught me at both UNO and Lehigh. I owe quite a bit to both of them. In 1971 after I received my doctorate, Logsdon, Ambrose and I returned to the UNO History Department. Joe was always the conscience of the department. His untimely death devastated us; and in a time of crisis I find myself asking "Joe where are you when we need you so much?"

Some of you may remember Dr. Woodie Tucker, the scourge of freshmen chemistry students. I remember how difficult it was to pass his class. However, it was not because he was cold and uncaring. He gave us his telephone number and I remember calling him and he would simply say, let me get my book and would go over the problems. I was pleased to get a C from his course because most students failed. Perhaps he was a more effective teacher in his office, or by telephone, but I learned from him the importance of being accessible to students.

John Altazan obviously was not uncaring and unconcerned. While deans are formally charged with advising their students, most routinely delegate that responsibility to their faculty- but not Altazan. Somehow he found time to personally advise each of his students. He was so concerned that he established a study hall for probationary students. To make sure they attended, he'd check on them in the library. Despite his heavy duties as dean, he always found time to teach and he has always been rated one of the top teachers on campus. I'm proud that both of us were chosen among the first Seraphia D. Leyda Professors. He will tell you that students appreciate the faculty because they continue to maintain a relationship long after they leave us.

Our graduates have been successful which attests to the strength and quality of their education. They can be found in the arts, business, government, science and medicine, as well as the legal professions. Quite a number have become successful lawyers. I taught one of the more prominent ones, Morris Bart. I've been wondering, why don't we have a Morris Bart Chair? If you believe his ads he can afford it: Morris Bart got me $230,000, or Morris got me a cool $million/six. Somebody should ask him to put up the money for a chair. He'd probably agree.

UNO graduates have served in high-level government offices: Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, Attorney-General, as mayors, sheriffs, judges, parish and city councilmen, school board and police jury members. The next Orleans Parish District Attorney will be a UNO alumnus. UNO graduates and faculty have served on a myriad of boards, commissions and study groups. My history colleague, Warren Billings, got a chance to curtsey to the Queen of England as a member of Virginia's Quadricentennial Commission. All bring credit to and enhance the reputation of this 50 year old institution.

And finally, what of the future — of our future? I'm reminded of the scene in Philadelphia following the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The most remarkable feature of the meeting was its secrecy. There were no leaks from confidential sources. Until the new document was made public, no one not connected with the convention knew its contents. As he was leaving the last session someone asked the venerable Benjamin Franklin, "Well Doctor, what have we got?" Franklin responded: "A republic, if we can keep it." Basically he was warning Americans not to look backwards but look forward and work toward enhancing the republic in the future.

Homer Hitt reflected Benjamin Franklin's philosophical views of the future. After retirement, he lent his name and services to a number of worthy causes. During our many chats over coffee or tea he offered advice to me as I served on university or community committees or commissions. During one of the last conversations we had he showed me an old folder with some news clippings, and he reminded me that I had earlier asked him about his initial response to the campus's desegregation. He had thought about it for a long time and he told me that he had determined to make it work. He wouldn't try to cling to the past that he had once supported, but he had determined to make it work. Make it work — good advice for all of us today.

None of us can know the future, but it is possible that some of the members of the Founders Club may live to see UNO's Diamond Jubilee in 2033, a few of you may even see the Centennial in 2058, although I expect that I will not be among that number. But we founders have an obligation to continue looking forward, not backwards. Don't bemoan what they have done to your university. Work with the next generation of scholars and students to make this an even greater, more inclusive, more humane university in a greater city.

We need to increase our financial support for the university. Like UNO, Lehigh, my graduate alma mater, has a founders club, the Asa Packer Society, but to join one has to make a minimum of a thousand dollars contribution. We may want to revisit the membership structure of our Founders Club. You may have only a limited amount of financial resources, but you can help make a difference. We can contribute our time and talents and expertise to the university and the different communities where we live to make them better. Fifty years ago some of you contributed to the birth of this university and the revitalization of our city, today and in the future all of us can contribute to their post-Katrina revitalization.

We have a great university! — Let's keep it. We have a great city! — Let's keep it.

Thank you very much.


Copyright © Raphael Cassimere, Jr. 2008


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