I’ve been around a while
I know wrong from right
And since a long time ago
Things been always black and white
Just like you can’t judge a book by the cover
We all gotta be careful
How we treat one another
~Buddy Guy, Tom Hambridge, Gary Nicholson
From LSU to the “L” train
Lettsworth, Louisiana, in Point Coupee Parish, has a population of less than half of the undergraduates currently enrolled in the LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Kennedy Center Honoree, and six-time Grammy winner George “Buddy” Guy is a Lettsworth native whose hands have made him one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time. For a brief period, those hands helped to repair things that were broken at LSU.
At 19, Guy took a job with what eventually became known as the LSU Office of Facility Services; at the time he could not have enrolled at the university due to his race. Guy worked here from 1955 to 1957, the outset of the Black Civil Rights Movement under Jim Crow laws.
In 1953, two years prior to Guy working on campus, and one year before the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision, A. P. Tureaud, Jr. was admitted to LSU, under court order, as our first African American undergraduate.
“It was the beginning of the worst experience I ever had,” recalls Tureaud. “I was totally rejected by the adults, the faculty, and the students.”
Tureaud remembers being harassed, ostracized, and kept awake all night with loud music and repeated banging on his dorm walls. He says this prevented him from studying and, at times, even sleeping. He resigned in less than a semester to pursue his education in more welcoming environs. It would be 11 years before another African American would be called an LSU undergraduate.
Even with all of the acrimony during this period on campus, Buddy Guy graciously recalls working for LSU. Of quitting the maintenance team to follow his dreams of playing guitar in Chicago, a burgeoning blues hub, Guy quotes his foreman as saying, “You can always have your job back, Buddy, if things don’t work out up there.”
But, “work out” things did as Guy quickly established himself as one of Chicago’s greatest bluesmen and a hero to multiple generations of guitarists from Eric Clapton, who inducted him into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 along with B.B. King, to Keith Richards to John Mayer. Seven years later, in December 2012, he was inducted into the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts along with David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, and Led Zepplin.
At the induction ceremony, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein remarked of the bluesman, “Buddy Guy is a titan of the blues and has been a tremendous influence on virtually everyone who has picked up an electric guitar in the last half century.”
Though he hasn’t worked on campus for more than 50 years, LSU, through the College of Music & Dramatic Arts, is proudly bestowing an honorary doctorate to one of our own, George “Buddy” Guy, a true Louisiana musical legend.
Three years after Guy left Baton Rouge to find success in the Windy City, six African American students filed suit and 13 more were admitted into LSU in 1964. Thanks to the efforts of the A. P. Tureaud Chapter of the LSU Alumni Association, these pioneers will be recognized at spring 2014 commencement.
One of the plaintiffs, Oliver Mack Jr. went on to become LSU’s first African American engineering graduate in 1969. During his five years, he also served in the ROTC (as was required of all male students at the time) and became one of LSU’s first African American commissioned Air Force officers. Mack recalls the Hollywood script-worthy legal proceedings that ushered in his class’s first day as LSU students.
“I had never been in a courtroom before, but I had seen the footage of James Meredith being escorted by U.S. Marshals to Ole Miss, so even though I was nervous, I was optimistic that we would win our case,” recalls Mack.
The six plaintiffs would win, but not on their court date. The ruling was not handed down until the first day of LSU’s summer 1964 registration. Mack says a shrewd presiding judge in the case likely prevented protests and perhaps even violence.
“We were hoping to get a verdict on the spot, “ remembers Mack. “But, the judge, in an effort to avoid any media attention that could’ve led to protests, sit-ins, or worse, waited until the first day of class registration to issue the ruling. So we all had to hustle to campus to register that day, which we did, and that was that.”
Mack, a McKinley High graduate, lived at home, so he did not face the same types of nightly hazing as did Tureaud, who enrolled 11 years prior. Thus, he recalls his time at LSU as “not too bad, maybe some slurs here and there under their breath.” The only time he felt really disrespected was not by a peer, but by one of his engineering professors.
“The professor was handing back our first tests and, when he came to me, he just kind of threw the paper at me, as opposed to handing it to me like he did with the other students,” he remembers. So, Mack stopped by the professor’s office to ask him about the situation. It was then that he was told that there was “no way” he would ever pass the class.
“He said that I just wanted to ‘make trouble’ and didn’t care about graduating,” says Mack. “I assured him otherwise, but he only offered to give me a ‘W’ grade if I resigned from his class, so I did. I took the same class under another professor the next semester and passed with a ‘B’.”
Mack went on to work for Humble Oil, now part of ExxonMobil, as well as to serve as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, and then on to a successful career as a civil engineer.
Another success story of the 1964 class is Dr. Irene Jackson-Townsend (then, Jackson). Although, unlike Mack, she was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jackson was the first African American female enrollee to complete her undergraduate studies, finishing in four years with a bachelor’s degree in zoology.
Jackson went through a number of humiliating incidents both in and out of the classroom, which may have crushed the spirits of many students, but she was told her entire life that she was college material; it wasn’t a matter of “if,” but one of “when” and “where” she would attend.
“My parents were both educators,” says Jackson. “That didn’t give me much choice; I had to finish college.”
With a mother whose favorite saying was, “To whom much is given, much is required,” Jackson persevered through instructors who, instead of admonishing students who threw paper and erasers at her in class, simply told her to move to the front row. That, however, was perhaps the least of her indignities.
In Jackson’s sophomore year, she recalls a professor asking her to step outside to talk. Jackson assumed she was going to be asked to run an errand because there was no other reason for her to be called outside before class. What happened next had nothing to do with running errands or “class.”
“My teacher told me that every summer, she invited her students to a pool party,” remembers Jackson. “Then she said, ‘you are not to attend.’ So, we walked back inside and I had to sit there and finish class while she extended the invitation to everyone else.”
Jackson says the professor told her that the hotel where the pool party was held “didn’t allow blacks,” but she later found out that her parents had previously attended educators’ conferences there.
Jackson did find camaraderie and inclusiveness, however, in the Golden Band from Tigerland, in which, she played flute. Having won awards for her talent at Southern Lab, she fit in quite well on a team of musicians who, like her, were goal oriented.
“In a marching band, you have to work together musically, rhythmically, and on formations to get the job done,” recalls Jackson. “Those folks were a little more open-minded because, well, talent is talent and whoever made us a better unit was accepted for the most part.”
After graduating in 1968, Jackson eventually attended Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C., where she met her husband. She still resides there and is a practicing physician and the medical director of a rehabilitation facility.
Nearly fifty years after that historic group enrolled, LSU has its largest African American freshmen class in university history, having welcomed 2,774 students last fall, or 11 percent of the entire class. LSU also has an Office of Equity, Diversity & Community Outreach (EDCO), which will soon name a new vice-provost, a recently rebuilt African American Cultural Center, and the six-year graduation rate for African American students has increased every year for the last five years. Finally, LSU is proud to announce the largest African American graduating class in university history at spring 2014 commencement. LSU is not what it was even 15 years ago, much less 50.
One senior who will keep LSU’s graduation rate among African Americans on its current upward trajectory is Nygel Anderson, a non-traditional, 29-year old, African American Studies major.
Anderson knows that racial divides still exist everywhere. Yet, he is grateful for the support he has gotten from both staff and faculty at LSU, who he truly feels want him to earn his degree and succeed. His plan after graduation is to work for a prison-reform, non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.
“LSU has given me the momentum I need to reach my goals,” says Anderson. “People here really want to see students succeed, so there is no reason for us not to.”
Unlike the passage of time, successes are not linear. LSU has come a long way since the 1950s and 60s, in no small part due to the perseverance, not only of those who stayed, but also of those who left, forgave, and now triumphantly return.
Nygel Anderson and Brenda Macon