For two families, a Southern University education meant everything. Then came tragedy.

Published: Oct. 30, 2022

By: Claire Sullivan, Brittany Dunn, Shelly Kleinpeter and Annalise Vidrine | LSU Manship School News Service

First in a four-part series.

Josephine and Denver Smith took different approaches to protests at Southern University in the fall of 1972. Josephine skipped class for meetings, while her older brother stayed away and warned her to be careful.

The pair had grown up with 10 other siblings in a tiny sharecropper’s house near New Roads, Louisiana, where they picked cotton in the hot sun and harvested pecans to help make ends meet. When they were not working, they fished, swam by the river levee and, not having paper, scratched their multiplication tables in the dirt with sticks, the oldest checking the work of the youngest.

Despite their modest finances, one thing was always certain: They would go to college.

One by one, the siblings enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Denver was the third to go, followed by Josephine the next year. And while Josephine lived in a dorm amid the growing campus ferment, Denver – 5 feet, 9 inches and slim – walked each morning to a white-framed Catholic church, where he hopped on a school bus for the hour-long journey southeast to Baton Rouge.

The protests at Southern in October and November 1972 echoed what was happening around the United States in an era of civil rights and anti-war activism. Southern — the main campus in a university system that had the most significant number of Black students in the country — had its own history of activism that began with lunch counter sit-ins. By 1972, many of its 9,000 students in Baton Rouge were tired of what they saw as poor funding and teaching, dilapidated buildings, and a lack of responsiveness to their concerns.

From those frustrations came weeks of protests, class boycotts, and demands for a change in the school’s leadership. Rather than sticking with negotiations, university officials repeatedly summoned sheriff’s deputies and state troopers onto campus—and a standoff between roughly 150 students and 85 heavily armed officers on Nov. 16 ended in tragedy.

Amid the chaos and tear gas, a single blast of buckshot fired by a deputy from the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office killed two 20-year-old men in a stream of fleeing students.

Read more at Shreveport Times

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