Marie Renaud was the first African-American teacher at Leonville High School in Leonville. She had no idea what she was going to experience.
OPELOUSAS — Local civil rights activists Charles and Marie Renaud and Rufus Charles have seen it all before, so recent violent racial confrontation in Virginia revived familiar feelings.
“All I could think of is: ‘Here we go all over again,'” said Marie Renaud, who retired from St. Landry Parish schools in 2007 after 40 years.
What’s different, she said, was civil rights activists in the 1960s and 1970s sought to work within the system, or to become part of the system to improve it. It’s how she raised her own children. Now, she said, people try to work outside the system.
With Charlottesville, Virginia, news as a backdrop, the Renauds and Rufus Charles this week recounted their parts in the early civil rights struggles. They participated in demonstrations and desegregation efforts in embattled St. Landry Parish in a time when racial lines were drawn hard.
The lone black teacher
Marie Renaud was placed at the front lines by happenstance in 1969, when, with barely a year of teaching experience, she was assigned to become the sole black teacher in whites-only Leonville High School, southeast of Opelousas. It wasn’t a choice: Desegregation orders were in place and school administrators John Dupre and Dudley and Dewey Auzenne told her she was going.
A native of Opelousas’ “Brickyard” neighborhood, third of four daughters of Lawrence Mason and Ethel Mae Kimble and a graduate of segregated J.S. Clark High and Southern University, the young English and reading teacher had no experience with white schools. In fact, she said, she’d walked past white schools to attend J.S. Clark.
More: Analysis: Time and a killer tip scales against monuments
She’d never even crossed the bridge over the Bayou Teche that took her to Leonville, a community of about 500.
Baptism was delivered by fire that day.
That April 1969 afternoon, the Auzennes accompanied her to the school to meet the principal there and get acclimated to her new role. Although she was unaware of her new assignment earlier that day, others knew.
A small band of white protesters — it included a local white Catholic priest — awaited her beneath an oak tree near the school. From a low branch hung a noose, with a crude representation meant to be her, she said.
A ‘counter’ demonstration
Such hatred didn’t surprise Rufus Charles.
A decade older than the Renauds, he’d participated in demonstrations and sit-ins in the ’50s and early ’60s. One effort he holds dear: He was among Opelousas blacks who desegregated the counter at J.W. Low, a discount merchandise store near the downtown courthouse.
Low, a Texas native who co-founded the town’s Yambilee Festival in the ’40s, maintained counter service for whites only. Charles said white waitresses refused to serve black customers, so activists like Charles, who was in the insurance business, would sit at the counter to prevent Low’s from serving other, white customers.
More: Voices: We have bigger problems to worry about than monuments
More: Baton Rouge, sleepy but ‘progressive’
Old practices die hard.
He said it took several years of activism before resistance broke down even at Low’s. But that reflected the curious mix of circumstances in St. Landry Parish at the time: Black voter registration was high, because the white sheriff, “Cat” Doucet, depended upon black support; Catholic schools Holy Ghost, for blacks, and Immaculate Conception, for whites, were segregated, divided by an integrated cemetery; the NAACP, established in 1963, launched dozens of sit-ins and filed some 30 lawsuits in a courthouse where a Confederate monument had decorated the lawn since 1920.
Separate proms, graduations
Charles Renaud, younger son of Goldman and Helen Renaud, said his father was a tenant farmer. But unlike many black residents in St. Landry, he said, his father owned property and was less dependent upon being in the good graces of white residents in order to earn a living. The family was active in civil rights from an early stage, protesting and demonstrating for jobs at segregated businesses such as grocery stores and motels.
“They were trying to right wrongs,” he said. “They were trying to get African Americans jobs.”
Charles Renaud took a circuitous route toward a 40-year education career, starting at Lamar Tech in Texas, quitting to work construction and returning later for a degree at Southern. He took a teaching job at segregated Dunbar High in 1968-69 and later took positions at Washington and Lawtell schools, both embroiled in desegregation efforts. One principal belonged to the White Citizens Council.
Renaud said he and two other black teachers balked when their principal said proms and graduations would be segregated. They advised black students to not attend; that summer, they were fired. He took a job at Leonville for the 1970-71 school year and taught in a classroom next to Marie, whom he later married.
Protected by marshals
Both remember working under conditions of heavy security.
“Teachers had to walk through a gauntlet of marshals” at one school, Charles Renaud said. Marie Renaud was accompanied by marshals to school in Leonville every day her first year and protesters remained there for perhaps two or three years, she said. The experience toughened her up, she said.
When Leonville High opened in 1969, Marie Renaud said, most white students — about 8,000 in all — boycotted. In her first class, a lone white girl showed up.
Things stayed mainly the same until November, as many white families attempted to send their children to makeshift white academies but either couldn’t afford private education or, eventually, learned that the new, black teacher was not so bad.
The Renauds say some white prominent families, those of a judge and car dealer among them, sent their children to public schools under the new, desegregated circumstances from the outset. They were brave, the Renauds said, because white children whose families accepted integration were treated cruelly by other whites.
Marie Renaud remained at Leonville until the mid-1980s, when she left for a new assignment as director of a special reading program. She later served in the central office and retired in 2007.
Some kindness, some changes
She said some white teachers were kind, like Mrs. Saul Speyrer, “who took me under her wing.”
The local white priest continued to show contempt for her, though, and would sometimes enter her classroom and take white students out without permission. Among students she taught while at Leonville, she said, were two who later entered the priesthood. The Catholics schools were integrated in 1970.
The Renauds themselves raised three children: a carer military officer, a professor and a lawyer. In retirement, they care for a 2-year-old grandchild.
Sometimes, Charles Renaud said, history repeats itself. He said he’s visited Charlottesville, “a small, progressive college town,” and said the outbreaks of violence were unfortunate. But those he said, “are the times we live in.”
And lived in — in Opelousas.