Editor’s Note: Leslie D. Rose is the niece of Elaine Chustz Green, one of the 13 students who desegregated Baton Rouge High School with the class of 1964. Green was not quoted for this article.
It began on Sept. 3, 1963, the first day of school in Baton Rouge. The temperature was 75 degrees, but the social climate was much hotter. This was the day that 13 black students desegregated Baton Rouge High School.
Cabs provided by the American Friends Service Committee drove up Government Street, with the black students four to a car. Police officers, reporters, spectators and hecklers lined the breezeway of BRHS and stood either silent or snickering as the 11 girls and two boys made their way to the entrance. None of the students – white nor black – knew what to expect on the other side.
“I knew a lot of kids whose parents wanted them to just wait a few days to go back to school,” said Milou Barry, who attended BRHS when the 13 black students arrived. “There was a plan being discussed that a group of Key Club members and cheerleaders should greet those taxis and escort those terrified black students up the long walk to the front doors of that huge school. The rest of us were supposed to applaud them.”
But that didn’t happen. The black students entered the school quietly, seemingly invisible to the white students – until they were heckled or physically attacked.
The African-American students, who had been recommended by their teachers, came from McKinley High School and Southern University Laboratory School. Once they passed an entrance exam, the students began regular meetings with the NAACP and church leaders for training in non-violence and survival strategies. The same measures were not taken on the other side.
“As far as I know there were no workshops or instructions to the white students who were at the school about what we should expect or, more importantly, what was expected of us in order to facilitate the integration of BRHS,” said Robb Forman Dew, one of the white students at BRHS in 1963. “Had the grownups in our lives wanted the experience to go well they could have done a great deal to make it happen. Many of our teachers were truly racist, and certainly didn’t want the experience to go well, I imagine. Of course, some were wonderful people who were horrified by racism. But no one thought to put in place a code of conduct, or even to try to ameliorate problems before they came up.”
This was 10 years after the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional. Before that, desegregation of schools had been happening across the nation since 1940 – in small instances, with the admission of one student here and there, mostly at colleges and universities. In 1960, desegregation began in Louisiana with New Orleans public schools. Three years later, in the heat of the Civil Rights movement, Baton Rouge began to integrate Lee High, Glen Oaks High, Istrouma High and Baton Rouge High.
One of the 13 black students, who is now in her 60s and asked to remain anonymous, recalled a moment when her frustrations overcame her preparation and training one afternoon at lunch. An incident involving her and a white student took a violent turn. After having a lunch plate of food dumped on top of her head by the white classmate, she sent multiple plates crashing atop of the tow-headed boy, leaving him red with blood.
“It was senior day and the theme was cowboy day and none of the [black] classmates wanted to dress up, but I dressed like a cowgirl,” she said. “That boy dumped his food all over my head; mashed potatoes and gravy and greens. That prompted me to find every plate I could find, breaking them over his head. It was something I wouldn’t normally do, because we were coached and very well trained on nonviolence. I don’t know why he did that, but I think that he was frustrated that his sister and I befriended one another in choir. They [BRHS] suspended me for one day, but it was worth it. That day I earned the name Cassius Clay; it’s what everyone wrote in my yearbook.” (Cassius Clay, who later changed his named to Muhammad Ali, won the 1960 Olympics gold medal for boxing.)
And, while that incident may have been an extreme response, softer, quieter events agitated situations like that daily. Most white youths refused to partner with blacks during class projects, leaving a few brave students and teachers to play those roles. And, then there were some students like Mimi Riche who said she regrets not befriending her black classmates.
“Unfortunately for me, I was not classy enough to step across the line and engage with my new classmates other than to quietly speak in passing,” Riche said. “Today, I would imagine we might be good friends. The past 50 years have brought us a long way, in many ways, not nearly far enough”
The class of 1964’s story was all over the nation on television, on the radio and in various newspapers and magazines. The largest media response was in 1963 when NBC evening news aired a report by anchor David Brinkley about the desegregation of Baton Rouge high schools. He noted that the capital city had waited nearly 10 years after Brown vs. Board of Education to begin opening their high schools up to all races. And, the black students who were described as brave, strong and determined were not getting the same positive messages from their classmates, school system administration, or the city at large.
Here on the homefront, the black students were told daily that they would never graduate. Many of them said they believed it until May 1964, when they were lined up in an LSU auditorium for commencement – some graduating to no applause, but with scholarships and high honors. The daily nightmare was nearly over, but the memories remained deep wounds that are still healing.
“That year at BRHS ran the gamut of human emotions: excitement, wonder, anxiety, fear and closeness to my fellow [black] travelers and many other feelings,” said Charles R. Burchel, one of the 13 black students. “I’m glad I did it. For me and others not to have done it would have helped to solidify racist stereotypes that were so prevalent.”
With the 50-year reunion approaching in May of next year, some of the white students have befriended black students throughout the planning for the event that began in 2011. Several former students said the feeling of a two-year friendship versus what could have been a 50-year relationship weighs heavily on what were once the terrified hearts of teenagers.
Former student Walter Eldredge and other white students said they now regret not forming relationships with the new students that year, blaming ignorance as the culprit.
“My overwhelming memory of that year is that I knew the ostracism of those kids was wrong, yet I allowed myself to be diverted into my own little teen-world events and I let others establish the status quo, rather than make myself a target by reaching out,” he said.