Elizabeth E. LaVergne-Pinkett – Curriculum & Instruction Faculty, 1994-1999
Elizabeth E. LaVergne-Pinkett
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Dear College of Education,
My letter about the College of Education is perhaps a deviation from others contained in the Book of Letters, for I am neither a USL alumnus nor a participant in its early history. As a Louisiana native, I returned to my place of origin after having lived successfully for several years in Northeastern United States and Atlanta. I share a story about USL and the College of Education’s place in my history.
Rooted in real estate and property taxes, my historical connection with USL dates back to when present-day Louisiana was the New Orleans Territory. My first known ancestors arrived in New Orleans from Limousin, France by way of Quebec; Lyon, France; and Africa. Consequently, my family has lived in South Louisiana for 275 years and in St. Landry Parish–historical and present–for over two hundred years. As people of color, my Creole paternal and maternal ancestors purchased large amounts of land in St. Landry Parish when it was part of the Opelousas Post and antebellum Louisiana. The first land purchase for which the family has records occurred in 1806 in St. Landry Parish by my paternal great, great, great great grandmother. After the Civil War and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, my family continued to acquire real estate in St. Landry Parish and Acadia Parish. For instance, my mother’s paternal grandparents, whose parents were people of color, purchased property in present-day Acadia Parish between 1888 and 1915. Her parents purchased their first one hundred acres in 1897 in Acadia Parish, which was part of St. Landry Parish until 1886. As was expected of all real estate owners, they paid property taxes. Despite my nineteenth-century and twentieth-century ancestors’ tax contributions to the higher educational system in Louisiana, the law of the land prohibited their children from attending these institutions.
Along with Louisiana State University, Northwestern State University, and Louisiana Tech, USL is one of the institutions for which the tax dollars of my ancestors were used for its establishment, development, and progress. The university was already fifty-six years into operation when it first opened its doors to Black students. Two years later, the first Black student graduated from USL. Despite the attendance of a few Black students, their presence at USL was a well kept secret. Considering how informed and college-oriented my parents were, had they made references about the Black students at USL, their comments would have been imprinted indelibly on my memory. However, I do not remember any discussions about this occurrence while I was growing up in the St. Landry Parish countryside in the 1950s and early 1960s. On the other hand, two of our Caucasian neighbors with whom my parents had positive relationships had children who attended USL (SLI). One neighbor’s son who had enrolled after returning home from the army was “important” in our eyes because he was going to the school which we (my schoolmates, friends, and relatives) perceived as out of our reach.
Indeed, SLI was a mysterious place to this aspiring young scholar living on a farm in the country. I knew of Black individuals from my church, school, and neighborhood who had been awarded Ph.D.’s by the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. Additionally, two of my teachers at Plaisance School had earned masters degrees from Columbia University. My parents presented these individuals to us as educational success stories and made sure that we interacted with them at every opportunity. These role models epitomized what my parents assured us we could achieve. Unfortunately, there were no Black professionals known to us who had attended and graduated from SLI, nor who was attending during that time. Accordingly, when my friends and I talked about going to college and eventually earning Ph.D.s and M.D.s, USL was not considered an option for college, at least not on the conscious level. We talked about “going up north”; we did not discuss remaining in Louisiana to attend USL because USL was just never part of our cognitive representations of our future.
Thus, to ensure that educational success to which I aspired, my parents sent me to a private girls boarding high school in Maryland–St. Frances Academy–with the intention that I would be to attend the college of my choice. They secured for me the opportunity to obtain that Ph.D. to which I had aspired since the fourth grade. One year after I graduated from high school in 1963, everything changed. During the period when I began and finished college at Towson State University in Maryland (now Towson University), few of my schoolmates enrolled in and graduated from USL. The Civil Rights Bill had been passed in 1964.
In the spring of 1994, thirty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, my association with the College of Education at USL began when I made the decision to return to Louisiana–my home state, my place of origin. By this time, that mysterious college down the road, which had not previously been part of the ambition repertoire of a young Black, farm girl’s aspirations to become a university professor, was just a normal consideration for employment as a faculty member. I left a faculty position at one of the most coveted universities in the country to become part of the faculty in the College of Education at USL because I experienced the College’s profound spirit of openness.
What I experienced was the metamorphoses of the College of Education, which had long-ago set the stage for a native Black professional to be able to return to opportunity in her place of origin. Thus, the mysterious college down the road is now an internationally known university where everyone is significant, and each member is part of its essence. Unquestionably, the College of Education has contributed prodigiously to USL becoming part of the ambition repertoire of aspiring young African-American scholars and professionals, not only for their education, but also for their professional success. My ancestors approve of the College of Education’s metamorphoses: The College belongs to their children, too.
In conclusion, my story may be unbelievable to the generation immediately after my generation, just as some of my parents’ experiences were incomprehensible to me. This dissonance reflects the College’s transformation into a place of opportunity for all. Contrary to common belief, it is a positive sign when each new generation cannot imagine or conceptualize the experiences of the immediate previous generation. This type of generational difference indicates civilization’s progress, its movement forward, its discontinuity. Indeed, as we enter the third millennium, the College of Education continues to effectuate the evolution of civilization.
Elizabeth E. LaVergne-Pinkett, Ph.D.