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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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‘I didn’t exist’: First Black Tulane graduates reflect on 60 years of desegregation

The eight panelists featured spanned six decades of Tulane experiences. The earliest graduate attending was Pearlie Elloie, who graduated from the Tulane University School of Social Work in 1965. (Ellie Cowen)

Tulane University’s first Black student did not step foot onto campus until 1963, almost a decade after the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional.

This was more than a century after Tulane’s founding. 

It was 82 years after Paul Tulane donated the money that would make Tulane a private institution, on the condition that the university be dedicated to the education of white young people of New Orleans. 

Last week, Tulane commemorated the resilience of the first Black students on campus, their successes after graduation and recognized the challenges they faced before and during their time here. 

Black graduates from some of Tulane’s earliest desegregated classes gathered for a panel on Oct. 20 in Jones Hall to recount their time in such a fraught, yet groundbreaking, period in the university’s history. The eight panelists represented six decades of Tulane experiences, graduating from 1965 to 2017. 

Deirdre Labat, class of ‘66, was the first African American woman to attend class on Tulane’s campus at only 17 years old. She described the isolation she felt surrounded by white students as damaging to her confidence, especially during such a crucial time for girls to develop their self-esteem.  

“I would eat my lunch alone; I didn’t make lifelong friends,” Labat said. “I didn’t have to worry about sororities because nobody was gonna invite me to join their sorority … I didn’t exist.” 

Labat found no more support from her professors. She was an A-student but received a D on one assignment in an English class. When she went to speak with the professor, the professor said Labat should have never thought she could compete with white students.  

“That was the roughest semester I ever had here because I let her get into my mind that something is lacking,” Labat said. 

Labat took these experiences at Tulane into her career in social work and education as dean of the College of Arts and Science at Xavier University of Louisiana, encouraging her students to believe in themselves. 

“I believe Tulane taught me that what a student needs is not so much critical criticism, but encouragement that they can do [it],” Labat said. 

Edwin Lombard, class of ‘67, spoke of a similar sense of isolation from white students. He saw firsthand how students in fraternities, which were not open to Black students at the time, could support each other with scheduling classes and sharing resources. Seeing this system of support benefitting his white peers inspired him to found the African American Congress. 

“We pooled all our resources to make sure we all had an opportunity to graduate, not only the company, but to support one another,” Lombard said. “So they won’t have those lonesome nights and won’t have those lonesome meals.” 

The exclusionary nature of Greek life was not quick to change at Tulane. 

Ernest Sneed attended Tulane in the ‘80s and said it was a welcoming place in general, but professors and teaching assistants were not eager to go out of their way to help Black students in the way they would support other students. 

“The TAs were part of the fraternities and sororities. You could be smart … but if you don’t have that inside information,” Sneed said. “I had some very talented African American students [in my class]. But for various reasons, whether academically or financially, by the time I graduated in the class of 300, I was the only African American male.” 

De facto social segregation extended to extracurricular activities beyond academics and Greek life.

Harold Sylvester was the first Black student to receive an athletic scholarship to Tulane, where he would come to play basketball and join the theatre department. He said white students spoke and acted like he was not present, giving him an unfiltered view of their interactions.  

“Being one of the only [Black students] in the theatre department as well as the basketball team was experientially phenomenal because it was an opportunity to learn almost as an invisible person,” Sylvester said. 

But experiences for Black students at Tulane in the early years of integration were not all negative. 

Pearlie Elloie, was a part of the original suit to desegregate Tulane and attended the Tulane University School of Social Work with 10 other Black students before graduating in 1965. She said her experience on campus was characterized by support and protection from staff. 

“[Staff] let me know that they were proud of me, that they would protect me,” Elloie said. “It was our pleasure to be a part of this, to be a part of the situation where doors were open for people of color.” 

Another lesson learned at Tulane was to be slow to judge others. Gwen Thompkins, class of ‘97, studied history and Soviet studies. She was the only student in her Russian history class, where the professor, a white man, said he did not believe in a holiday in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. 

“I thought to myself … this is not going to work out,” Thompkins said. “But, we’ve gotten to know each other over the years. If you don’t take offense and you start listening to what the person is saying … and interact with the person over time … hopefully there will be a different meeting of minds.” 

The Black graduates of Tulane’s earliest desegregated classes went on to change the landscape of their respective fields. Elloie dedicated her professional life to improving the lives of children at Head Start Services. Sylvester is an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director. Lombard was elected judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and has worked to ensure fair elections worldwide. 

The graduates’ success is both a testament to Tulane’s excellence as an academic institution, but also their individual perseverance through the discrimination and isolation they faced on Tulane’s campus. 

“Each of them through, their brilliance and clarity of vision, their strength and courage and perseverance changed Tulane forever,” Provost Robin Forman said in the introduction to the panel. “As we look back tonight at desegregation and all the iterations of Black student resistance that came afterwards, we have the opportunity to reflect on our future and the work that lies ahead.” 

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  • Tamara ProsperNov 1, 2023 at 7:17 am

    I appreciate that they opened doors for the rest of us. By the time I attended Tulane, there were enough Black students, a few professors, and plenty of staff, for us to have a community of support when some members of the larger student body, and faculty, made us feel unwelcome.

    Reply
  • Chip BaileyOct 28, 2023 at 9:54 am

    Outstanding story. Thank you. And I am humbled by the courage and wisdom of those black students who persevered and paved the way for others. We are all better because of them.

    Reply
  • Jeanne C. McGloryOct 26, 2023 at 7:56 pm

    I went to the School of Social Work in 1979 and performed some preventive measures. When I heard the heavy Mississippi twang of my advisor, Liz Rayne, I refused to go near her and advised myself. Second semester, there was a block, I couldn’t get my courses, and liz left a message with True, the receptionist. I had to meet with Liz, found her to be an exceptionally wonderful person, and held her in high regard.
    Once I had an appointment with Liz for which she was very late. I continued to wait in her office. When she finally arrived, she couldn’t stop crying. I tried to console her and waited until she could talk about whatever it was. She apologized for being late and said her cat had just died. A few weeks later, my mom was having a mastectomy, and I was tearful. In an effort to ease the pain, Liz described her bout with breast cancer, which was a tremendous help. She was the best advisor ever!

    Reply
  • MarkOct 26, 2023 at 7:20 pm

    Over time, it worked out. No one said it would be easy. Look at Tulane now. Beautiful Black people everywhere on campus. Unfortunately, when you have an massive change, it is always a rough start.

    Reply