South Louisiana has a long and complicated history with racism and segregation. And it’s taken a while for people to acknowledge that remnants of this past are still represented in landmarks and public spaces around the state—and even on LSU’s campus.
A group of young Black students at LSU helped remind us all this summer.
In June, as much of the country was taking a hard look at statues and landmarks celebrating Confederate troops or anti-Black leaders, LSU junior Exquisite Williams posted a tweet. She proposed that the namesake of Troy H. Middleton Library would not have wanted her at LSU. It got thousands of responses, and inspired Williams and her friends to start a petition on Change.org.
Middleton served as LSU’s president during the push for desegregation at college campuses in the 1950s and ’60s. In a now-notorious letter to another university’s leader, Middleton explained he would begrudgingly allow Black students on campus but insisted they not interact with white students, use the school’s swimming pool or participate in athletics.
The petition by Williams and her friends quickly garnered thousands of signatures—and it kicked off a movement. The campus organization BlackoutLSU took notice and asked Williams to join. The group developed a list of six policy demands for LSU and held its first rally on June 3.
From there, BlackoutLSU met with the interim president and the board of supervisors over the next few weeks to discuss Middleton Library. And change happened fast.
“We organized on a Wednesday, and the next Wednesday, we held our first rally,” says junior Devin Woodson, one of the organizers of BlackoutLSU. “Within 17 hours, we had over 1,000 Instagram followers, we had 400 people at the rally, and that was when the administration realized we were serious and met with us.”
During a contentious LSU Board of Supervisors hearing in June, friends of the Middleton family argued that the former LSU leader later changed his views and even joined a state commission to enforce the Civil Rights Act. But the board still voted to remove his name from the campus’ centerpiece library, with board chair Mary Werner saying all students should feel welcome and the school “must continue the hard conversations.”
Woodson says that watching the support grow over such a short period of time was empowering for him and the other members of BlackoutLSU.
“Seeing all of the Black faculty and staff we have on campus,” he says, “and hearing from older Black people around LSU sharing their experiences from while they were here, to hear them say they were proud of us meant a lot because I know how hard they fought just to be students.”
Second-year LSU law student Richala Jackson served as BlackoutLSU’s legal analyst during the name change push.
Jackson says other student groups had tried to get Middleton Library’s name changed in the past, but their demands were ignored. However, they thought the current administration was more open to change.
“The question I get a lot is, ‘Do we want these buildings we’re renaming to be named after Black people,’” Jackson says. “That’s not necessarily the point. I mean, if they were named after Black people, that would be amazing. But I would just prefer it not be named after someone racist.”
While the students of BlackoutLSU say the Middleton name change was a step in the right direction, they add it’s just the beginning.
“We hope that it acts as a light to Black students to show that it’s possible to work through the toughest positions,” Woodson says. “Being in the South, being in Louisiana, you can still create change and make life better for yourself and other Black students. We want it to be a message to the LSU community, Louisiana and the country that racism doesn’t have a place anywhere. Wherever there’s a dark corner, we’re going to shine a light on it.”
While the board acknowledged LSU has more steps to take toward social justice, the actions taken this summer by these students might have helped to finally turn the tide on campus.
For Williams, the experience made her even prouder to be part of the LSU community.
“It made us feel like we weren’t alone in the movement,” Williams says. “I love LSU, and I love this school, but when you love something, it’s important to recognize the problem in the thing that you love. There’s nothing wrong with calling out issues in things that you love.”
This article was originally published as part of the October 2020 cover story of 225 Magazine.