By Lily Jackson
Reckon Staff Writer
This story is part of a state-by-state series looking at racist histories and Confederate remnants on campuses across the South, and explores how current administrations are working toward a better future.
Around the time Reconstruction ended, a former Confederate general named P.G.T. Beauregard led all-white militias to break up a strike of African American sugarcane workers who were demanding better pay from their employers.
The event, now known as the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887, ended with the white mob killing 60 black sugarcane workers and dumping their corpses in unmarked pits. It was one of the worst mass killings of workers in the country’s history.
Even the white press celebrated the killings, which some newspapers saw as a victory against a blossoming Black labor movement that threatened the ruling social order of white supremacy.
Today, monuments to Beauregard dot the South, including P.G.T. Beauregard Hall, a freshman residence hall, on the campus of Louisiana State University. His legacy stands strong on the campus despite the renaming of the campus library, which previously honored Troy H. Middleton, a former LSU president and segregationist.
“[The university] acted so quickly on Middleton, but the other 13 names (of known white supremacists) matter,” said Sebastian Brumfield Mejía, a senior at LSU. “They are dragging their feet on the other names. What are they going to do when we ask for real systemic changes?”
Brumfield Mejía, on behalf of his student activist group, submitted a list of proposals for the renaming of those buildings, and Jason Droddy, associate vice president for the Board, responded in an email with a request for him to reformat the entire proposal for it to be considered.
However, “[t]he Board of Supervisors at any time, on good cause, can change or revoke the name on any Facility or of any Academic Unit,” according to LSU’s policy on renaming campus structures. This power was evidenced this summer when the university renamed the Middleton Library.
The killing of George Floyd prompted a new wave in a national movement supporting Black lives, and students are weeks away from bringing their fight for rights, reparations and responses to college campuses across the South.
Meijía and other activists say renaming buildings named for Confederate generals and segregationists is just the first phase in students’ demands for racial equity when they return in the fall.
Removing Middleton’s name met disdain from his descendants who described him as “an American war hero and Louisiana icon,” but the change led to the selection of a group of administrators to evaluate other campus structures. The group formed this summer, and has yet to take any action.
Among them: The Office of Research & Economic Development, housed in David F. Boyd Hall. Boyd, a Confederate Army major who served as LSU’s president from 1865 to 1880, once stated that he “looked forward to the political return of native white Democrats,” or “‘Redeemers,” white supremacists who pushed for the return of slavery, according to research by Democracy at Work LSU.
And before Boyd’s administration, in 1860 George Mason Graham — who is still considered the “Founding Father of LSU” — placed a newspaper ad calling for the murder of two of his escaped slaves.
But, LSU’s history of racist incidents isn’t confined to 150 years ago.
A Summer of Unrest
This summer, a video surfaced on Twitter showing a white, male, incoming student making racist comments about Black people, prompting a statement from the university that condemned “hate and bigotry.” However, the university hedged, “we are subject to constitutional limitation on our ability to take action in response to free speech.”
After a swift backlash, LSU’s administration apologized for their initial response on Twitter and stated the white student would not enroll in the fall, although it’s unclear whether the school rescinded his acceptance.
Soheil Saneei, a current student at LSU and member of a campus activist group, said he is uneasy about the fall semester. Between the impending fight for students’ rights and the ongoing fear over health and safety due to the coronavirus pandemic, some students are worried but unwavering, he said.
“We want to start off with educating people on campus about what is really going on,” he said. “We have gathered resources, petitions, letters from professors and support from student leadership.”
Saneei and his friends founded the campus organization Democracy at Work LSU as a response to activism that seemed more like “resume builder” activities to some students. In response to the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the student group has gained traction and support from other students and university faculty.
In addition to ridding the campus of buildings named after white supremacists, the group of students is recommending that historically underrepresented people be given preference in future renamings. The students provided a list of potential names, including Ollie H. Burns, the first black graduate, in 1957, and Thomas Durant, one of the first Black professors at LSU.
But despite the demonstrated support around campus, administrators did not sufficiently respond to the group’s research, questions and requests, said Brumfield Mejía, a Democracy at Work LSU co-founder.
“They could make [changes to the building names] happen right now if they wanted to,” Brumfield Mejía said. “The administration is hesitant and not very forthcoming. It’s really frustrating to be doing all the research and the university is just pulling you along.”
Saneei said they are more than happy to work through the traditional channels in the beginning.
“We will escalate as we need to in order to be heard,” he said.
This story is the fourth in the series, “University Racism Unraveled.” Click here to read the first piece about students returning to campus in the fall. Click here to read about Auburn University and the University of Alabama. Click here to read about the University of Mississippi. Stay tuned for more as we continue.