- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) - Three years ago, a professor at Mississippi University for Women was prompted by a student’s capstone to look into the history of desegregation at the university. She was surprised by what she found - nothing.

No newspaper coverage, no photographs, not even the names of the first women to desegregate the school in 1966.

So Erin Kempker, associate professor of history, became curious. Where was the record of this landmark for the university? It clearly was not as tumultuous as the University of Mississippi integration a few years earlier that led to riots, arrests and deaths, but what were the circumstances?

Charles Hogarth, the university’s president in 1966, did not encourage, discourage or discuss the university’s integration in any correspondence Kempker could find. What did the silence mean?

Kempker, along with a small army of interns, is scouring the school’s archives, special collections and “old closets on campus” looking for files or images that could help tell this story.

Kempker found that in 1966, there were six African-American women who officially desegregated the university: Three traditional students who entered as freshmen and three non-traditional students pursuing master’s degrees or other continuing education.

Laverne Greene-Leech was one of the three freshmen women, along with Diane Hardy and Barbara Turner. Greene-Leech still lives in Columbus and volunteers at the R.E. Hunt Museum - where she went to high school.

All three freshmen women graduated from Hunt High School, actually.

“There was no reason to go to Jackson State or Valley when we had a school right here,” Greene-Leech said. “Just because of the color of our skin, we weren’t going to cause any problems.”

Even so, the women were not prepared for the discrimination they would face. Greene-Leech said that during her senior year in high school, she and the two other women were called into their principal’s office. He told them he had received a call from MUW’s president about their applications. The principal tried to dissuade them from attending MUW.

“He said, ‘I’ll help you get a scholarship anywhere else you want to go,’” Greene-Leech said.

But the women were determined. They were accepted to the university on the condition that they could not live on campus. They were allowed to go to their classes and could go to the ‘town girls’ room’ in between classes.

“But we weren’t welcome there,” Greene-Leech said. “Most of the time we just found a little nook where we could sit.”

Each lived in a separate area of town, so each day after classes they walked home, alone.

It finally became too much for Greene-Leech when a man followed her home from school and sprayed water on her as she walked. She threatened to hit him with her umbrella, and after the incident her mother decided it would be best for her to leave town. Greene-Leech said her family and community feared she would be assaulted or killed.

“So I left,” Greene-Leech said.

Kempker said her research has revealed this intimidation was widespread. The women were treated as troublemakers and inferiors. They were isolated from peers and even their home communities, who did not think they were doing the right thing.

Kempker told of an incident where one of the women was eating in the cafeteria and a group of students dumped a trashcan on her, then forced her to pick up the trash.

Greene-Leech told of being in class and feeling invisible. Nobody would sit within three seats of her.

“What has been told about this history is that was nonviolent,” Kempker said. “And looking back you can say that’s true, nothing happened. But those women certainly didn’t know that at the time.”

None of the three girls graduated. Greene-Leech pursued a degree at another university, and Hardy came back to MUW in the 1990s and completed her degree.

“We all kind of had a bad taste in our mouth about the W,” Greene-Leech said in her oral interview with Kempker. “As time went on and healing began, I think we all felt better. Diane (Hardy) and I began to reconcile with the progress that the W has made now.”

And it has made progress. Now, MUW boasts the most diverse student body in Mississippi. Kempker is planning an exhibit for next fall that she hopes will tell the story behind this progress.

“Who are we and how did we become that way? That’s a basic thing that every institution has to answer,” Kempker said. “And we never have.”

The exhibit will officially take place in the fall of 2016 - 50 years after Greene-Leech and the others desegregated campus - and will consist of a publication of students’ research, theater productions centered around oral interviews, a documentary and a series of speakers on campus, among other events. Throughout the coming 2015-2016 school year, events, classes and forums will begin the conversation. The first event open to the public will be a play on Sept. 25.

Austin Rayford is an intern who has worked on the project since April. Working with Kempker and his fellow interns has given him a greater appreciation for the history of his town and for the challenges faced by those first students who desegregated.

“A lot of times we think, ‘This happened years and years ago,’” he said. “But some of the people who experienced those extraordinary moments in history are still here with us.”

Kempker presented her plan for the exhibit to the Kiwanis Club at a recent meeting.

After her presentation, one member raised his hand.

“I’m sorry to ask this question,” he said. “But going back and looking at all of this, how is that going to help MUW as we know it today?”

Kempker, Greene-Leech and Rayford have wrestled with the question.

For Kempker, it’s a question of filling a gap in scholarship and of validating the experience of Greene-Leech and the others who suffered to pave the way for others.

For Greene-Leech, it’s about facing the past. She was initially wary about participating and had never talked about her experience, even with her family and best friends. Now, she realizes the importance of her story. She is determined to do whatever Kempker and the students need for the exhibit.

For Rayford, it’s simple. Why is this project important?

“Because sometimes we have to look back to move forward,” he said.

___

Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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