Local woman shares her story of desegregation in high school
BATON ROUGE - Just days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream Speech" in 1963, 28 young African-American students were the first to step foot into segregated high schools in Baton Rouge.
Dr. Velma Jackson is being honored by Smithsonian magazine as one of only a few black people in the Baton Rouge Magnet High School class of 1964. On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, she reflected on the importance of the movement he started.
For Dr. Jackson, the long walk from the cab to BRMHS on the first day of school September 3, 1963 was not easy.
"I remember seeing National Gaurdsmen on the roof top," Jackson said. "We had been told they would be there for our protection should we need it. Then coming up the steps into the lobby of the school and waiting to meet the principal and vice principal."
Out of 56 applicants, only 28 black students were approved to desegregate the high schools, and 13 of them, including Jackson, went to BRMHS.
Jackson told WBRZ "We were very aware of it. We had been taught very well about what to expect and how to conduct ourselves. I was excited because I wanted to see what the other race was exposed to because we came from very loving, nurturing schools."
Although it was clear that times were changing, they were always reminded that change does not happen overnight, and that spring, they were uninvited to the prom.
In a meeting with the principal, Elaine Boyle Patin recalled, "He said 'Well you realize if you insist on coming to the prom. These students, their parents have resources. They can just have their prom somewhere else.'" She remembered her response to him very clearly. "And I told him, 'That's fine because my mother pays taxes to fund this school, so I will be attending the prom.'"
Incidents like that were constant throughout that year, and forced the students to face an ugly truth about the state of the nation. Walking the halls of the school she first stepped into so many years ago brings back the message Dr. King delivered to students across the country.
"We knew and were focused on exactly what Dr. King told us to do," Jackson told News 2. "We had to desegregate the schools to make things better for the future."
Baton Rouge schools were not officially desegregated until 2003. Although they have yearbooks and photographs from their senior year, they don't always look back at the time and smile.
People like Freya Anderson Rivers, who desegregated Robert E. Lee High School, are still asking themselves one question with a simple answer: "Would I do it over again? And it's always the same response... it had to be done."
Smithsonian magazine, featuring Dr. Jackson's story, will be on sale in June.