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58 Years Later, LSU's First Black Undergraduate Receives Honorary Degree

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More than a half-century ago, Alexander P. Tureaud Jr. became the first African-American undergraduate at Louisiana State University until students, teachers, the administration and the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals forced him out before he could finish his first semester. On Friday, Tureaud received a standing ovation when LSU awarded him an honorary doctorate after the "soul-numbing hostility" he endured on campus in the fall of 1953, and in honor of the publication of A More Noble Cause: A.P. Tureaud and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Louisiana, the book he co-authored with Rachel L. Emanuel.

A.P. Tureaud Jr. grew up in the Seventh Ward in New Orleans during the 1940s, one of six children in a family where higher education was a rite of passage. Both his parents were college graduates, and his father, A. P. Tureaud, was the Louisiana civil rights pioneer and, at one time, the only black lawyer in Louisiana.

Growing up in the Creole neighborhood, he was surrounded by educated, accomplished people of color -- from artists and musicians to academics and attorneys. There weren't any hotels for blacks at the time, and Thurgood Marshall used to stay at his house whenever he was in town for a case.

Tureaud sat at his family dinner table and heard guests like Marshall tell colorful stories about his own college life at Lincoln University where he became friends with Langston Hughes and Cab Calloway, and how the experience opened his mind and shaped his life.

"I couldn't wait to go to college," Tureaud, Jr. recalled.

A good student in high school, Tureaud had options. He could have attended historically black universities such as Howard, Dillard or Xavier, but after talking things over with his father, he decided that Louisiana State University represented the best deal for the money. The one problem, of course, was that LSU did not accept black undergraduates. His father had to file a lawsuit in order for the younger Tureaud to attend, and once the courts ruled in Tureaud's favor, A.P. Sr. dropped his son at the Baton Rouge campus for the fall semester of 1953.

"It was the beginning of the worst experience that I ever had," Tureaud said. "I was totally rejected by the adults, by the faculty and by the students."

He lived in the dormitories under Tiger Stadium, in a barracks-like room with no air conditioning, designed to house three students. But no students would live with Tureaud, and the young men in the rooms next to him took turns banging on the walls all night long, hoping to make him "too miserable to stay."

It nearly worked. "I couldn't study. I couldn't think," Tureaud said. "I was just an emotional cripple, almost."

Tureaud's father found his son a tutor. Norman Francis was the first black undergraduate at Loyola University New Orleans in 1952 and years later he'd become the president of Xavier University. Francis helped Tureaud with his math assignments and the LSU freshman aced his next exam.

A white female professor walked around the room, returning the tests. "The curve was set by Mr. Tureaud," she said, "and I just don't understand how that's possible."

"The only people that spoke to me at the university were the maids, the groundskeepers and the servers in the dining room," Tureaud said. "They were all black. And I got more food than I could ever eat as I went through the cafeteria line."

But early in his first term, LSU appealed the district court's decision and the 17 year-old Tureaud went back to court for further humiliation.

"Twenty-four white lawyers who graduated from the law school worked pro bono on that case," Tureaud recalled. "I guess they wanted their names in the papers to prove to people that they were maintaining the status quo."

Tureaud was opposed in court by famed Louisiana segregationist and white supremacist, Leander Perez, who, as spokesperson for the group, pointed to the young Tureaud during a deposition, calling him "the most ungrateful Nigra in the state of Louisiana." He'd be an embarrassment to the university, Perez said, sarcastically adding that black schools weren't "good enough" for the Creole student.

Tureaud returned to Baton Rouge, nearly broken and unprepared for the continuing hostility directed toward him. At night, he'd lie alone in his dorm room, listening to the roars of Mike the Tiger, the school's mascot that was kept in a cage beneath the stadium. It occurred to him that he had more in common with the mascot than he did with the other students.

One morning, he was sitting on a campus bench in front of Mike's cage when a truck pulled up and a black man got out. "He'd said he had been looking for me," Tureaud said. The man had his eight year-old son with him, and he told Tureaud that he wanted his boy to see him. "I want him to know that this is possible for him," the man said.

"I said to him... 'You have just ruined my day,'" Tureaud recalled. "'I'm ready to leave because I can't do it. You've increased the feelings that I have about being accountable and responsible.'"

Tureaud stayed at LSU. But after eight weeks "which seemed like eight years," the elder Tureaud arrived in Baton Rouge to pull his son out of school. The court ordered a retrial before a three-judge court and LSU cancelled his registration the following day.

"Hallelujah," the student replied. The court order took the decision out of his hands. But Tureaud was clear on one thing. "I'm not coming back."

His father appealed the decision and received a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, but Tureaud Jr. had already transferred to Xavier University. Representing the NAACP, his father ultimately desegregated the universities of Louisiana, the same way he'd been behind nearly every important civil rights lawsuit in the state.

For his part, A. P. Tureaud Jr. went on to enjoy a successful career in public education in New York. With Rachel L. Emanuel, the two authors have written an informative and engaging book that covers the scope of Tureaud Sr.'s lifelong devotion to dismantling legalized segregation in Louisiana. But most importantly, this personal biography shines a light on the civil rights movement in New Orleans through the eyes of a family that lived through some of the darkest and brightest moments in American history.