Dr. Carrie Baptiste grew up in Baldwin, Louisiana, just southwest of New Orleans, in a home of strict but loving religious parents. She chose Southern University for her college career because it was the largest HBCU in the country and not very far from home. It was also a university that she was familiar with as she knew many family members and friends who went there. Southern also had “a great reputation.” Although it was segregated, as were all colleges and universities in Louisiana, Carrie said it was affordable and she received a tuition scholarship offer that helped seal her decision. “The time I spent at Southern were some of the greatest years of my young adult life,” she said. “I made many lifelong friends and encountered numerous opportunities to do well there. Southern was where a student received not only an excellent education but was also a place where students engaged in social, cultural and political activities.
The social life was wonderful. These are all reasons I rank it among my best years.”
During those times, students were faced with lots of restrictions. They had curfews and couldn’t off-campus date until their junior year of college and only then to approved movies and restaurants. They had to be dressed in their very best for Sunday dinner and many cultural events. It was a controlled campus. The students didn’t have access to the cities so Greek life, proms and church service ranked high among our social engagement,” Baptiste-Jackson said. “When ‘LIGHTS OUT’ was called, all interactions ceased. That was the rule and it was strictly followed.” There were no co-ed dorms. The student union was the site of most social interactions. She said they were exposed to “many outstanding black professionals who came to speak at our school.” There were “lyceum series” similar to Michigan State University’s Annual Lecture Series. The lyceum is how organizations present public lectures/concerts in a public hall or auditorium. “We enjoyed live performances, Broadway plays, educational enrichment and a touch of finishing school where professional attire/protocol was modeled for us,” Baptiste-Jackson. “Every Sunday and Wednesday we were required to attend vesper (church) service which was more like spiritual enrichment than religious teaching. Our students were exposed to beautiful choirs who sang hymns and Negro spirituals. There were very memorable black history experiences that included visits from Mordecai Johnson and Muhammed Ali. We all got excited when Muhammed Ali came because he was so handsome!”
Our students were taught and encouraged to support organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Not only were we actively involved, but our commitment to social justice and advocacy was so strong that we refused to have a prom and donated our money to SNCC instead. We also donated our allowances to help fund these organizations.
One of the highlights of her college career is when Baptiste joined classmates in boycotting class and going to Baton Rouge to participate a civil rights protest march. She said it was a time when “political consciousness was high and that was exciting to me.” Participating on that level expressed feelings that she had never been able to verbalize until that pivotal point in life. Many parents came to pick their students up from school but hers allowed her to stay and participate which helped her discover a cultural-social-political consciousness within herself.
As an English major at Southern University, Carrie participated on the newspaper staff. As a Digest writer, she was soon crowned through campus competition as “Miss Digest.” The paper highlighted the mounting civil rights and social justice protest movement that was gradually making waves across the country. Baptiste-Jackson became very involved through her writings and advocacy.
She said students had sit ins on campus in protest, even beyond curfew, which was unheard of. “We sat up all night,” Baptiste-Jackson said. “We were acting in support and solidarity with the student sit-ins in Greensborough South Carolina and elsewhere. They (instructors/leaders) were begging us to come in. One day a student leader ran down the hall of our classroom yelling that buses and cabs were coming to take us to in downtown Baton Rouge. Students jumped up, abandoned the instructors, and ran to board the black-owned buses to transport us free of charge. We marched in the face of whites that spat as us and called us names. My roommate’s parents came to get her. I wasn’t going home. My daddy was a political leader and preacher. He was the only independent professional in town. The Black church paid his salary. He later became the first city councilman and mayor pro-tempore in Baldwin.”
“The elders tried to persuade us to stop. Our college president was afraid we would lose funding for the school because white folks controlled the money. Young people were concerned about lack of opportunities and what was happening to black people,” she said. “It was exciting times from 1957-1961. The Little Rock Nine protesters were in our age group. Their activism made us proud.”
By the time she graduated from college, the protest movement was really beginning to take form. With the rise of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the Kennedy brothers and Stokely Carmichael, hope for change was on the horizon.
Her graduate experience was vastly different, however. Baptiste-Jackson chose Louisiana State University (LSU) to pursue her Master’s degree. The school was forced by court order to integrate.
“It was the most racist place you could go,” she added. “But our people had been property owners who paid taxes very soon after being feed from slavery. Their taxes were used to fund the public schools and universities and we were determined to benefit from that. In no way, however, did I feel inferior to the white students. We had been given a strong educational foundation at Southern. I believe if I hadn’t had the experience of an HBCU I could not have survived such overt and blatant racism, though.”
Southern University, overlooking the Mississippi River, is an 884-acre campus that includes an agricultural experimental station. As the largest HBCU in Louisiana, the land grant college was established on April 1, 1880. There are currently 1600 members of its administrative staff with 6508 students. It is a NCAA-Division I school boasting of school colors, Columbia blue and gold. Between 2004-2013 the University ranked #4 in the nation for Bachelor of Arts Degrees. In the fall of 2015, sixty-five percent of the graduates were female. Eighty-five percent of Southern’s student population was from Louisiana. The school’s top feeder states were Texas, California and Georgia. Ninety percent of its students are African American.