Black History: Integrating Tulane University
11th February 2013 · 0 Comments
By Travis Andrews
Pearlie Elloie never wanted to be a hero. She had no plans to be a symbol of the civil rights movement, and she sure didn’t plan on integrating one of the most prominent universities in the United States of America.
Yet that’s exactly what she became. Alongside Dr. Barbara Guillory Thompson, Elloie was the first African American to attend Tulane University, where she earned her master’s degree in social work.
Both Thompson and Elloie had attended Dillard University, where they were honored this past week for their fortitude in integrating Tulane University. Thompson had already taken major stride in the fight for civil rights when she earned her master’s degree in sociology from Louisiana State University. There, she became the first African American to live in a dormitory. From there, she went to Tulane to earn a Ph.D.
Elloie, though, had no intentions to integrate any institution. She was a happily married New Orleanian with one child and another on the way. At the time, she wanted to earn her master’s degree in social work, and she saw no reason to begin the 80-mile commute to Baton Rouge in order to do so. Tulane, after all, was right here in the city. Elloie had worked hard in undergraduate, so she had the grades to attend the school.
One thing held her back: The color of her skin.
She was approached by her former Dillard professor John Fury, who asked her if maybe it was time to bring the lawsuit against Tulane, to fight that battle.
“It was the easiest decision to make,” Elloie said. “It was what I needed, and I had the support I needed.”
So, in 1961, she brought forth a lawsuit challenging Tulane’s policy of not allowing African Americans to attend. She said there were people of every ethnicity at the school. Every ethnicity, except hers.
“At some point, there were some leaders in the community who thought it was time to challenge the racial barriers up at Tulane,” she said.
According to a 1963 news story that ran in the January 26 edition of The Times-News, “Earlier, Tulane had successfully fought a federal court order to force admission of Negroes.” The article also states that in 1961 the university’s board of administrators stated intentions to open enrollment to “both [white and Black] races if it were legally possible.” Provisions in the school’s endowment, however, prevented such an action, the story goes on to explain. Paul Tulane, the university’s founder, stipulated in the school’s endowment that “the university was to be for white only,” according to the news story. It was the week after the federal court order to force the admission of African Americans was reversed that the school announced a “voluntary admission of Negroes,” the news report states.
It took two long years, but in 1963, she was admitted to Tulane University to pursue her master’s, which she did with haste. In two years, she had earned the degree she sought. During that time, she doesn’t remember seeing another African American on the campus. Thompson was separated from her since she was working on a Ph.D.
Tulane University President Scott Cowen expressed his sentiments about the university’s racial history during an MLK Day ceremony held at Dillard University on Jan. 22. During the ceremony, Cowen presented both women with Lifetime Achievement Awards for their work in New Orleans as well as for their role in diversifying the university’s student population. Cowen also expressed his dismay at the hard fight the women had to endure in order to enroll. “I deeply regret that it took a lawsuit to make that possible for you,” Cowen said.
Regardless, Elloie said she was received kindly by the administration and her fellow students. Even so, she ran into students who treated her as alien, but she tended to take it in stride.
“For a couple of students, it was clear they were not prepared to go to school with an African American, much less a sociable and outgoing African American,” she said.
The symbols of segregation surrounded her, though. She recalled her first day, showing up on campus and seeing the maintenance men, African Americans themselves, pulling down signs above water fountains and bathrooms that read “coloreds only.” They were preparing the school for her, and she knew it. Knowledge like that doesn’t rest easy.
It was then she realized that she was becoming something of a symbol. Most of the staff—maintenance men, cafeteria ladies, groundskeepers — was African-American, and Elloie could feel them silently rooting for her.
“They would always go out of their way to ask if I was OK,” she said.
Looking back, she’s happy that she helped integrate the school as a graduate student. She was a full-grown woman. She was a mother. She was a wife. She was mature and prepared to take the angry stares of people who were not ready for her to attend “their” school.
Partially because of this, she doesn’t consider herself a hero. She considers herself someone who needed something who went out and got it. What tugs at her heartstrings is the thought of small African-American children integrating grammar schools, children who could never fully comprehend what they were doing nor the pain that would come with it.
“I think about what the little girls then thought, and I just can’t comprehend it,” she said. “[At that age] you just want to have fun. You just want to go to recess.”
So she does her best to be a strong center of support in her community, but not because of what she’s done. “I would never consider myself a role model,” she said. Instead, it’s what she hasn’t done that makes her want to help others. It’s the fact that she didn’t integrate Tulane because it was the right thing to do, but because she simply needed a degree.
“I kinda wish sometimes I could say I wanted the school to open its doors,” she said. “But it just isn’t true.”
But now, as a social worker, she spends her time giving back to the community.
“I have never considered myself a role model, but I’ve always tried to do the best I could do wherever I am.”
And that’s the true definition of a hero.
Currently, Tulane has a total of 13,486 students enrolled, including both part- and full-time students; of that total, only 1,105 are African American, and serve as the largest group of minority students; Hispanics, the second-largest group, account for 5.66 percent of student enrollment totaling 667, and Asians are the third-largest group accounting for 4.92 percent with 580 students enrolled according to information released by the school.
David T. Baker contributed to this story.
This article was originally published in the February 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper