The ninth marker along the Louisiana Civil Rights trail was recently unveiled on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s campus. This marker honors four Black students who, during the civil rights movement, successfully sued in federal court after being denied admission to the university.
Clara Dell Constantine, Martha Jane Conway, Charles Vincent Singleton and Shirley Taylor had tried to enroll in 1953 to what was then the Southwestern Louisiana Institute. After being denied admission because of their race, a class-action complaint was filed.
A year later, a federal court ruled that admission to the university could not be refused on the basis of race, and the Southwestern Louisiana Institute became the first all-white, state-funded university in the South to integrate. Including those that filed the suit, 76 Black students were admitted.
The ninth marker was unveiled on March 2 on Rex Street, next to the Pillars of Progress. Speaking at the unveiling were Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, University President Dr. Joseph Savoie, Mayor-President Josh Guillory and President and CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau Ben Berthelot. Also present was the sister of Clara Dell Constantine, Joyce Constantine Henson.
The Louisiana Civil Rights Trail is a series of life-sized, person-shaped metal markers placed at locations where significant contributions to the civil rights movement were made. It was started by Nungesser, who after attending a conference where a presentation was given on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, realized that Louisiana didn’t have a trail of its own.
A meeting was held, and a team assembled to begin putting the trail together. The first markers of the Louisiana Civil Rights trail were placed in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans in 2021. The ninth marker at UL Lafayette is the latest, and future markers are still being planned for later this summer and fall.
“This incredible team went around the state, visited, hearing from the people that lived it and their relatives that lived it. We found quickly that we had incredible, incredible men and women that stood up, that were brave and really made a difference in the civil rights movement,” Nungesser said.
Savoie spoke on the marker’s significance in honoring the students who made it possible for all people of color to enroll at the university.
“Today, it’s an added honor to recognize four people whose fortitude in the face of intolerance and whose faith in the righteousness of their cause made that history happen, by pushing open the institution’s doors and removing a barrier that no student of color would have to face again,” Savoie said.
Guillory noted the importance of these markers, especially with ongoing issues concerning monuments memorializing the Confederacy.
“We all need to be committed to not erecting or protecting statues that were put up in the height of the Jim Crow era, not to recognize heritage, not to recognize history, but to intimidate an entire class of people,” Guillory said.
Berthelot remarked on this year being the Lafayette parish’s bicentennial, and how this is both a time to celebrate and to learn from Lafayette’s history.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to celebrate our history, to celebrate our great food, our great music and our great culture that we’re known for throughout the world,” Berthelot said. “But it’s also an opportunity for us to learn from our history, and to thank those who changed our history.”
The ninth marker serves to commemorate both the integration of Black students into the university, as well as the desegregation of its college athletics teams.
“The University later led the way in the desegregation of Louisiana college athletics when, in 1966, it added three black student-athletes to its basketball team. Two years later, black student-athletes joined the football team,” the marker reads.