Life As A 'Symbol Of Integration' In College

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In 1953, A.P. Tureaud Jr. enrolled as a freshman at Louisiana State University, becoming the school's first and only black undergraduate that year. His family had filed a lawsuit on his behalf, after his first application to the school was rejected because of his race. And, as Tureaud remembers, life on the campus in Baton Rouge was a challenge.

Tureaud, 75, talked about the experience with his friend, Steven Walkley, 62.

"When I got to LSU, I was miserable," Tureaud says. "The students wouldn't speak to me. I think someone had decided that if they totally isolated me I would leave."

"Did you have a roommate?" Walkley asks.

"No, I was in a room, but there were students on either side, and they took turns trying to keep me up at night with radios going, banging on the walls," Tureaud says. "If I walked in the showers, everybody walked out. And the professors wouldn't touch my papers. One woman even said, 'I've never taught a negro. How am I going to get through this term?'"

By helping to integrate LSU, Tureaud was in some ways keeping up a family tradition. His father, A.P. Tureaud Sr., was an attorney who worked to undo the "separate but equal" system that prevailed in Louisiana in the first half of the 20th century.

As for the younger Tureaud, his first year at college was a lonely one.

"So LSU, they have a Bengal tiger as their mascot — Mike the Tiger. And Mike had a big cage and a swimming pool. And his place was right across from my dorm room. So I used to go out in the morning and talk to Mike," Tureaud says as he and Walkley laugh.

"I'd say, 'Mike, you're in jail and I'm in jail — how we get out of this?'

"So I'm sitting there talking to Mike, and this pickup truck pulls up. And I thought, 'Oh boy, I hope this truck doesn't have a rifle rack on the back window, you know?'

"But a black man got out, he had on workers' overalls. And he said, 'Are you A.P Tureaud?'"

When Tureaud said yes, the man went back to his truck and got his 7-year-old son.

"And he says, 'I want him to meet you, because I want him to know that this is possible for him — to come to this school — thanks to you,'" Tureaud says.

"Wow," Walkley says.

"So, after I composed myself, I said to him, 'You've just ruined my day! I want to get out, I want to get out — and now I can't,' because I became the symbol of integration.

"I tell you, in retrospect — at 17, I grew up very quickly that year," he says.

In the end, Tureaud did leave LSU. In 1957, he graduated from Xavier University in New Orleans with a degree in education. For more than 25 years, he worked as the director of special education for the White Plains School District in New York.

And earlier this year, LSU awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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