Former UNO students discuss their experiences at a commemorative reunion and panel.

55th for the 55 — First African-American Students Return to UNO Campus

Former UNO students discuss their experiences at a commemorative reunion and panel.
Former UNO students discuss their experiences at a commemorative reunion and panel.

Today, some of the University of New Orleans’ first African-American students returned to campus, where we honored them with a welcome breakfast, commemorative reunion and panel discussion and a presidential reception in my home.

The University of New Orleans opened on Sept. 12, 1958 as the first university in the South to open as a fully integrated university.  Fifty-five African-American students were among the 1,500 students to enroll in the University’s first class.  These brave men and women in 1958 lit a path to the future and helped to ensure that our University is the diverse campus that it is today.

At a lunchtime panel discussion in the University Center led by Professor Emeritus of History Raphael Cassimere, I greeted the returning students, who are now in their 70s, with the following words:

“I bring welcome and greetings from the students, faculty and staff to our returning guests. As both the president and a graduate of the University of New Orleans, many things make me proud about this university. One of those things is our diversity. According to U.S. News & World Report, we are the most ethnically and economically diverse public university in the state. As you may know, the University is widely credited for having created the middle class in New Orleans. I think our greatest legacy is giving qualified students of all backgrounds a chance to earn a college education and to prepare for a career. Our diversity is, unquestionably, one of our greatest strengths.

“But the diverse institution that the University of New Orleans is today would not have been achieved if it had not been for a group of 55 brave African-American students who enrolled at what was then LSUNO in the fall of 1958. This time in our country was a time when equality was little more than a word, with little or no associated reality.  To those here from that proud 55 today we honor your courage and perseverance and your unstoppable dedication to learning.

“I realize that it wasn’t easy to be the first African-American students to attend a state supported-majority university in the South. I realize that it was a challenge to attend a university where integration only occurred in the classroom. I realize that it must have been a difficult time for you to leave class and be forced to eat lunch in a separate cafeteria.  I can only imagine the feeling of isolation for you courageous trailblazers who were determined to be an integral part of the University of New Orleans, even though many didn’t welcome you.

“But, I am here to tell you that I am sorry that you had to endure these challenges. I am also here to tell you that your courage and your personal legacy has made this university what it is today…open and welcome to all students, no matter their race, religion, culture or financial means.

“One of the University’s founding faculty members Dr. George Tregre wrote that the founding faculty was charged…”to provide at LSUNO an educational program resting on two great foundations — accessibility and excellence.” He continued …”This meant creating a university open to all, of whatever economic class or racial ancestry.  And it meant the determination to make that creation a thing of value…it reflected a profound faculty promise that LSUNO would serve all who might profit by its tutelage, white or black, rich or poor…the pledge that what was offered would match or surpass in academic substance and quality those programs heretofore available only in institutions beyond the financial means of the great majority of New Orleans.”  It is interesting that this charge to the faculty has really not changed since 1958 and I am proud to report that these values are still operating today.

“In closing, we are here to convey our appreciation for the vital role that you played in laying a foundation of diversity and tolerance here at the University of New Orleans. All of our students—past and present—of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds owe you a debt of gratitude for helping to ensure a richer and more vibrant institution for decades to come.

“God bless you, and may God bless the University of New Orleans, the Heartbeat of the Crescent City.”

It was an honor later in the evening to welcome these men and women, our first students, to my home.

Peter Fos