Enter the University Center at the top of the horseshoe driveway. To your left is the university cafeteria, renamed in 2014 for Louise Williams Arnolie, one of the original 55 African-American students and the first of her group to graduate from the university. Grab a snack, pull up a chair, and learn the rest of the story.
Despite the school's physical plant deficiencies and racial strife, LSUNO soon garnered a reputation for having high academic standards, which was one of the reasons Raphael Cassimere applied and became one of the 419 black freshmen who entered LSUNO in 1959.
After hearing stories of what had faced the first class of African Americans, Cassimere’s parents “weren’t too keen on my going there,” he said. “But that thirty-five-dollar tuition convinced my mother and she convinced my father.”
It seems that those first students had borne the brunt of the abuse. When Cassimere arrived on campus, most of the white students “were indifferent,” he said. He even managed to gain a small amount of acceptance when he received the highest grade on a test given by a particularly hard history professor. “It gave some of the white students a new perspective,” he said.
However, there was one aspect of LSUNO Cassimere was unhappy about: the cafeteria was still segregated. Black students were only allowed to buy food at a snack bar in a separate building. Cassimere approached attorneys Tureaud and Morial about the situation, and they agreed to write a letter to Dean Hitt.
“That’s when we found out that it wasn’t the school segregating the cafeteria,” he said. “Morrison’s, which ran a number of cafeterias in the region, had the lease and they had decided not to serve black students.”
Following continued pressure from attorneys Tureaud and Morial, as well as student snack-bar boycotts, Dean Hitt finally gave Morrison’s an ultimatum in the fall semester of 1960: either serve all students or give up the lease. The company chose to give up the lease.
The school “closed the cafeteria for a month between semesters, then reopened for the spring, serving everybody and there were no problems,” Cassimere recalled. The image below shows the cafeteria as an integrated space in 1961.
The victory was “very exciting,” said Cassimere, and the integration process at the college arguably spurred more social change. The following summer, at the first meeting of the new NAACP Youth Council, all of the officers elected were students from LSUNO. Working with other groups such as CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), the youth council conducted sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Woolworth’s and McCrory’s, located on the city's main thoroughfare, Canal Street.
They also boycotted and protested in front of downtown stores demanding that African Americans be allowed to hold such jobs as sales clerks, Cassimere recalled.
“That was considered a good job,” he said. “Up until then black people were only hired to do cleaning, or if you were light skinned, maybe you could run an elevator.”
On Aug. 12, 1965, after 730 days, the Canal Street protest ended, Cassimere recalled, “and literally hundreds of jobs had been created.”
As for Cassimere, he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history from LSUNO, then went on to receive a doctorate from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He then returned to UNO, where he taught history for more than 30 years.
Cassimere said he’s proud of the long hours spent by he and his UNO friends on the NAACP youth council working for integration, voting rights, and better jobs.
“We helped create a black middle class in New Orleans,” he said.
The rewards were simpler for Joseph Narcisse, who left school in 1960 to join the Air Force, but went back with the help of the G.I. Bill to finish his UNO degree in 1976. He recalled a particularly proud moment in the late 1970s, after his return to school. One day on campus, he overheard two black students openly having an academic debate, with obviously no self-consciousness or fear of those around them.
“I saw them sitting there, sounding all smart and feeling good about themselves,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I had something to do with making that happen.’”