In 1966, Mississippi University for Women’s complexion was forever changed. This transformation came following the courageous steps of Diane Hardy Thompson, Laverne Greene Leech, Barbara Turner, Jacqueline E. Edwards, Mary L. Flowers and Eula M. Houser—the first African-American students to enroll at then-Mississippi State College for Women.
Fifty years later, The W honored these pioneers bestowing Medals of Excellence to four of the six during a September Convocation, launching a year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of its desegregation. Awarded since 1979, the Medal of Excellence is the university’s highest non-degree honor.
“You cannot begin to overstate the courage of these women who desegregated the university,” stressed MUW President Jim Borsig, who recalls the political upheaval during the 1960s.
The University of Mississippi had been desegregated by James Meridith in 1962, and the process of desegregating the public schools in Mississippi was ongoing for the remainder of the decade. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965—both of which challenged the Jim Crow practices of the South. And in 1966, Columbus natives Hardy, Greene and Turner, all freshmen, and Edwards, Flowers and Houser, graduate students, enrolled at The W, marking a new beginning for the university.
Similar sentiments about the nation’s political climate were echoed by Civil Rights activist Dr. Leslie Burl McLemore, who keynoted the Convocation and transported audience members back to the 1960s.
McLemore reminded guests about the 1964 Mississippi voter registration project called Freedom Summer. It was the same year that activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia.
While these events were prominent in the country’s history, McLemore said the students’ entry to MUW was much more muted.
“The fabulous six brought blackness to MUW in 1966, although they brought it very quietly,” he said. “It was not the red carpet welcome, but some of them stayed. And we are here today because we are celebrating the achievements of the fabulous six.”
Retracing Their Footsteps
The background surrounding The W’s desegregation began to take shape in fall 2011, according to Dr. Erin Kempker, professor of history and chair of the Department of History, Political Science, and Geography. W student Jaleesa Fields, who graduated from The W in 2012 and majored in history, chose The W’s desegregation as her Capstone Project.
“It took her the whole semester to find that there was very little known. We didn’t have an archives at that point, which made things even more complicated,” Kempker said. “She managed to find the name of Diane Hardy Thompson and from there, she just contacted her through a number in the phonebook and Diane agreed to do an oral history.”
Thompson’s oral history was the first to be captured as part of the project. She passed away in February 2013. From that interview, they got the names of Leech and Turner and the oral histories have been ongoing ever since.
The W’s archives was finally opened in 2012, which assisted in gathering information about desegregation on campus. “Derek Webb prioritized collections dealing with desegregation in the move from Orr. Any collection that related to desegregation—student files, admissions files, all of that—he knew we would want. So, he made an effort to make them first priority for pulling, cleaning and accessing,” Kempker said.
The project grew from there to Kempker’s history classes. “We’ve just had students who really wanted to know the story and to research it and were willing to make this part of their class work. That’s how we got all of the research completed,” she said. “Students just kept going at it. Their work in the archives turned up many of the documents and images used to tell this story in the exhibits.”
In Their Words
Excerpts from the oral transcripts reveal how the three freshmen ended up at The W.
Thompson explained, “It was just divine intervention... It was an assignment. Well, in our English class, we had to write letters of application to various colleges. That’s what our teacher had us do that day. And I wrote just like everybody else, but I would start laughing to myself.”
She added, “What if I wrote to Mississippi State College for Women? I wonder how they would react?’ So, it was really a joke that I did it. I went ahead and wrote to them and mailed it. You know, not thinking anything about it. Like, I could just see their reaction when they get this letter from this colored girl from R.E. Hunt High School. So that was the end of it. Never thought any more about it at all…”
Leech said, “I don’t know if it was really my decision to integrate The W as much as it was just to go to a school that was close to home. The fees were very low and I could afford it. And the school was right down the street from where I lived, so there was no reason why I shouldn’t go to that particular school.”
The two also spoke about the pain and isolation they felt as students on campus.
“Because we were pretty much separated, and everybody else just kind of ignored me. It was like I wasn’t even there. And this included students, faculty and everybody. I remember a lot, even though I choose to forget. There was nothing absolutely nice about the way I was treated,” remembered Leech.
Thompson shared similar stories: “Many of the instructors, like I said, were nice, friendly, and then I had one that was- -made it obvious she didn’t want us there, and she wasn’t gonna hide it. That was in my English class, and I would raise my hand to ask a question or what have you. Of course, my hand stayed up, because she never recognized me ever.” Kempker, along with Derek Webb, university archivist, and Dr. Beverly Joyce, professor of art, have been instrumental in compiling a record of those days. The research has been showcased and will continue be featured at a number planned events.
A Salute to The W
Fifty years later and after much reflection, Leech has made peace with it.
“In August of 1966, we walked through those doors, 17-year-old freshmen…it was very easy to see us... We were quiet, we were very quiet—[It] was as quiet as it is now,” she said during a university convocation.
She recalled that as high school students, “Our senior motto was ‘We had crossed the bay. The ocean lies before us.’ Little did we know what the ocean was, but we decided to try and cross it. As they said, we had quite some experiences here—some we chose to forget, but, after years, we brought them back, and I am happy to stand here today and tell you that I feel grateful just to look out here and see the diversity that was not here in 1966. I feel honored if I played any part in making a difference.”
She acknowledged that this was not their original intention; they had only wanted to go to school. “We didn’t come here because anybody encouraged us to. It was just because we were three little girls who wanted an education,” she said.
“We did our best to make this institution proud, no matter what we went through, and today I stand here wishing above all that Diane could be here because she was the one who finished her journey. And, I am thankful for her for starting and finishing. And today MUW, I salute you as my school too,” she added.
Thompson went on to graduate from The W in 1996, 30 years after the school was integrated.
The W Today
Students from all walks of life continue to seek The W’s educational experience, which provides small class sizes and personalized instruction.
About 34 percent of W students are African-American and 19 percent are male. The university’s international enrollment has increased over the years and about 66 percent of W students are 25 or older.
Dr. Borsig said, “We are serving a student body that reflects the demographics of our state.”
He added, “These six women walked on to this campus and opened the doors for every student that we have here today, not just African-Americans, but for every student we have here. We are in a different place as a university than we would have been without them enrolling.”