BATON ROUGE, La.—The people who make up the Southern University community will never forget the institution’s history. It’s a point of pride, from the recruiters who visit high schools, to the students counting down the days until graduation and to the alumni who stay in touch decades after they last took a class.
To them, Southern is the school that welcomes everybody regardless of race and socioeconomics background. More important, they know Southern as the institution that took students who didn’t have a lot of college options and turned them into quality graduates despite a history of being treated as lesser by the state.
On Thursday, the Southern community celebrated 100 years in Baton Rouge with the Centennial Gala at L’Auberge Casino.
It was the school’s premier 2014 event to raise money for student scholarships. It was one event in a year full of centennial celebrations as Southern’s community looks back on its history.
Among Southern’s most distinguished students are jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame player Lou Brock and retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré.
But Southern Chancellor James Llorens said the rank-and-file alums who attended Southern through the Jim Crow era are the ones who built Southern’s legacy.
“With very little resources, Southern produced graduates who made a contribution,” Llorens said. “It was a segregated environment. We were separate, and certainly not equal, and Southern had to produce the teachers and others who could go back into their communities and contribute.”
Even long after the Jim Crow era, Southern was still not treated as equal to other Louisiana universities.
The U.S. Department of Justice had to step in twice, in 1981 and 1984, to compel Louisiana to fund Southern at adequate levels. The federal government had determined Louisiana was operating a dual higher education system with schools such as Southern suffering at the expense of others.
Southern alums like to talk about the school’s history of overcoming those obstacles. Many of them get defensive when Southern’s current troubles are mentioned.
The Baton Rouge campus has long been plagued by poor customer service. It’s evident mostly during registration week, where in the past students have camped out overnight to secure a place in line. Some latecomers had to wait upward of 10 hours to get their financial aid and class schedules finalized.
A little more than two years ago, Southern’s Board of Supervisors took the extraordinary step of declaring a financial emergency, giving administrators more leeway to lay off faculty and terminate academic programs.
The campus is trying to get back on its financial feet after years of state budget cuts and declining enrollment put the school’s long-term viability in doubt.
But Llorens, and others, say the university has never really known true tranquility. It has survived despite the constant turbulence, they say.
You can’t take 100 years for granted, Llorens said, especially considering schools, including Leland College in Baker, that were established under similar circumstances but no longer exist today.
Southern was originally established in New Orleans in the early 1880s during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.
The state Legislature designated Southern as a land grant college for Black students. It was a way to placate the federal government, which required that states provide education for all residents.
Historian Frank Ransburg, a retired Southern administrator, said the state was giving the university about $10,000 a year in those days—equivalent to about $230,000 today.
The school had about 40 students, all studying either agriculture, home economics or industrial arts.
Ransburg said the school’s poor financing forced it to shut down in 1912.
Charles Vincent, another historian, explains that efforts to revive the school were hampered by White property owners who did not want a Black school set up near them.
“Race relations were pretty much at a low ebb,” Vincent said. “There were 26 sites
proposed. There was push back on all of those locations.”
Southern was in limbo until the U.S. Department of the Interior stepped in and threatened to withhold money from LSU, if Louisiana lawmakers couldn’t find a home for Southern.
Legislators eventually found a spot for Southern in 1914 on Scott’s Bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
It was at that location that Southern’s first president, Joseph Samuel Clark, and later his son Felton Grandison Clark presided for more than 50 years.
Retired Southern math professor and author Everette Gibson credits F.G. Clark as transforming Southern into a major institution of higher education. “It went from one building on Scott’s Bluff, on what used to be a plantation, to now where it’s a $200 million enterprise with 200-plus buildings,” Gibson said about F.G. Clark’s tenure.
Today, Southern is known for its engineering program, law school and the highly-regarded nursing school.
Southern System President Ronald Mason said that one day in the future the Baton Rouge campus could be considered a highly selective university—essentially the honors college for the Southern system, which also includes campuses in New Orleans and Shreveport.
Forty-year Southern administrator Margaret Ambrose said this year’s centennial celebration is just a brief interlude in Southern’s history.
“Going through all the victories and defeats, we’ve always managed to survive,” Ambrose said. “Our challenges always seem to be a little bit more severe but we intend to meet them head on.
“We are pausing to celebrate, because we are still here. And we will continue on,” she added. “We think we’ve been great but we think we can be greater.”