BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - An idea inspired by a driver’s license photo has become a larger-than-life tribute to an LSU trailblazer.
Julian White, who became LSU’s first African American professor in 1971 and remained on faculty until he retired in 2003, is honored in a three-story mural that visually dominates LSU’s Art and Design Building atrium. It was completed in March by Lafayette artist Robert Dafford, shortly before LSU closed the campus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t know if it’s the appropriate term or not, but I think he’s like the Jackie Robinson of art,” said Dafford, referencing the first Black player to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947. “I don’t know what his personal struggles were, like teaching classrooms full of White students, dealing with White parents and the establishment in that time, but I don’t imagine it was easy.”
When White, who died in 2011, took the board examinations to be licensed as an architect in Louisiana, he was segregated from the White architects taking the exam in LSU’s Atkinson Hall. The room where he took the exams later became his office as a professor.
A scholarship and the building’s four-story atrium were named for him.
That, however, wasn’t enough for Alkis Tsolakis, who became the college’s dean in 2013. He never knew White but had heard stories about him from a predecessor, Ken Carpenter, and others on the faculty.
At the college’s annual event for scholarship recipients, donors and people for whom scholarships are named, Tsolakis met White’s widow, Loretta, and other family members. Later, Loretta White sent Tsolakis a music CD performed by her daughter, and included in the package a photo of Julian White cut out from his driver’s license.
“I looked at this, and I was profoundly touched,” Tsolakis said. “She wanted me to meet her husband.”
Tsolakis put the photo in his office where he could see it daily.
A communications assistant, Angela Harwood, suggested a mural to go with the atrium plaque honoring White. It would take several years to get approval and raise money for the project. From a list of finalists, Tsolakis chose Dafford because of his experience with mural projects. One of his most visible projects in Baton Rouge is the giant harmonica on the side of the Belle of Baton Rouge casino. Dafford also has painted several murals in Lafayette and is the artist behind “The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana” at the Acadian Memorial Museum in St. Martinville.
To minimize disruptions to the atrium and for his own convenience, Dafford did much of the work in his Lafayette studio, building frames and painting much of the 12-by-25-foot canvases there. First, however, a theme had to be agreed upon, which included input from the White family and Tsolakis.
One of the dean’s favorite paintings is “The Adoration of the Magi,” which depicts a procession of people that are led by one of the magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus. White’s legacy, Tsolakis reasoned, was not just being the first of his race to teach at LSU but being the first of many.
“I showed it to him (Dafford), and it clicked,” Tsolakis said. “I said I want this to show that this is the person who opened the doors to everybody at LSU. It was for you and me. It was the generations to come.
“Dafford is the consummate professional. He studied. He listened and made drawing after drawing,” the dean said. “I didn’t want this to be just a big portrait. It had to say a story. There had to be a narrative.”
Tsolakis let Dafford make a copy of the driver’s license photo as the basis for the part of the mural that includes White’s portrait.
Although the campus was closed due to coronavirus concerns, many students and faculty saw the nearly finished mural during its installation and many are getting a first look as school is again in session.
Tsolakis said one of Dafford’s assistants said he noticed some African American students stop to look at the work, then see the commemorative plaque.
“They stopped and read it, and they looked back up and said, ‘Yay, LSU!’” Tsolakis said. “This is exactly what I want. I want people to look at this and say, ‘This is my home. This is not just for White people. This is a public university.’ It became very personal.”
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