When Joseph Narcisse graduated from St. Augustine High School in 1958, he had large dreams and short pockets.
At a time when racial segregation had placed Pontchartrain Beach and Canal Street’s movie houses and lunch counters off limits to blacks, Narcisse had this crazy teenager’s dream of taking a plane from New Orleans to Los Angeles, enrolling at UCLA and studying architecture.
Who knows, in a few years he might even be able to do something to spruce up Rodeo Drive.
“Well, I had no idea,” Narcisse, who turns 79 on Feb. 20, said with a laugh. “Really, it was delusional. I didn’t have enough money to get my cap and gown.”
Sometime in June 1958, Narcisse received a strange letter at his house on Pauger Street in the 7th Ward. It was from the registrar at Louisiana State University at New Orleans – the future UNO – and its message was even more surprising. It was a rejection letter saying, essentially, LSUNO was sorry but it did not accept “Negro students.”
“I don’t even know how my name got on the list,” Narcisse said. “I didn’t apply to college. I didn’t apply to LSUNO. The strange thing about it was I was happy just because of the idea that something had my name on a college paper – that’s how bad I wanted to go (to college). I was glad because, first of all, somebody considered me, maybe just for a little while, but somebody considered me.”
Narcisse was born in LaPlace on Godchaux’s sugar cane plantation, but his parents wanted him to have a better education, and he lived with relatives in New Orleans during the school year. He was too embarrassed to let many of his friends at St. Aug know that he had worked the cane fields.
“I guess I was young and it was something I should have been proud of, but, you know, a lot of those kids at St. Aug, their parents were a little bit more prominent than mine,” he said. “I had a love-hate thing, because I loved sugar cane. I was born on sweetness. If it had sugar in its veins, that was for me. And I liked to see things grow.”
Narcisse would help plant the fields in June and pitch in with the harvest in December.
“I’m so glad I did that because it helped me structure my life, to understand the good and the bad, and the rough and tough of everything,” he said. “I think it definitely made a better person of me.”
He also latched on to a part-time job stacking and cleaning bottles for 75 cents an hour at the Pepsi-Cola plant on Tulane Avenue.
“I would always ask for more time,” he said. “If they wanted me to come on Saturdays and Sundays, I’d be there. One summer, the superintendent saw that I didn’t mind work when nobody else wanted to, and he came up to me and said, ‘You’re doing a good job. Here, take these movie tickets.’ But they were to the Saenger. A few days later he asked me how it went, and I said, ‘Thank you, but they don’t allow blacks in the Saenger.’ He didn’t seem to understand. Maybe he wasn’t from here. But he was very gracious.”
Narcisse never found out who submitted his name to LSUNO, but he suspects it was Josephite Father Matthew J. O’Rourke, the St. Aug principal. Father O’Rourke had been working with civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud, who lived a few houses away from Narcisse, to get Purple Knight graduates into all-white public colleges in Louisiana.
Narcisse had met with Father O’Rourke during his senior year, a practice the Josephite priest started to get an idea of his students’ future plans. That’s when Narcisse first verbalized his fantasy to attend UCLA.
As it turned out, Narcisse was among 55 African-American high school seniors from around the city chosen to enroll at LSUNO, which eventually became the subject of a court order to integrate and accept black students.
Getting to LSUNO was logistically uncomplicated. The Friday before Labor Day in 1958, Narcisse took the Elysian Fields bus to the Lakefront campus and signed up, without incident, for 15 hours, including electrical engineering, math and chemistry. He went to the campus bookstore and left “with an armful of books.”
Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, was the first day of class, and suddenly the world had changed.
Narcisse had seen the news about the racial tensions surrounding the desegregation of schools in Little Rock in 1957, so he had decided that weekend to spend some extra time in Corpus Christi Church, which at that time was open all night.
“I spent a whole bunch of time in this church praying – just in case,” Narcisse said. “I was clearing my soul out. Just in case I wasn’t coming back, I didn’t want to make a stop at purgatory. When I went to confession, I might’ve said whatever stick pin I took that wasn’t mine. I was preparing myself spiritually.”
When he got on the NOPSI bus for the first day of class, he walked to the back, past the white students, to join black women domestics and other black students.
“I felt pretty good, but I was still a little apprehensive,” Narcisse said. “I was looking for a comfort zone, and my comfort zone was where the black students were sitting.”
When the bus reached Gentilly Boulevard, all of the other black students got off.
“They were going to Dillard,” Narcisse said.
Then, as the bus continued north on Elysian Fields, the black housekeepers began getting off, stop by stop.
“By the time we got to Lakeshore Drive, it was just me and the white kids,” Narcisse said, “and everybody was looking back at me.”
In the distance, Narcisse heard a crowd “roaring.” He thought it sounded like “kids getting ready for a football game or a pep rally.”
“But when that bus turned on Lakeshore Drive, it wasn’t a pep rally,” Narcisse said.
As he walked on campus, white students were lined up each side of the main road.
“I wondered, maybe, what I had gotten myself into,” he recalled. “You start wondering, you know? And then they started with the chants, ‘Go home, niggers! … Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!’”
On his own
Narcisse was still in St. Aug discipline mode, figuring someone from the LSUNO administration would hear the ruckus and rush out to quell the nastiness. “Father O’Rourke would have been out there in a nanosecond,” Narcisse said. “If it was just one or two people saying this, I could understand. But when it sounded like the whole campus, you start thinking.”
About getting back on the bus?
“I don’t know if I thought about that because I was stunned for awhile,” he said. “I was like in a state of shock that this was happening. But there was something that just kept driving me. I knew I couldn’t turn back, although part of me wanted to. But I knew I couldn’t because I would have some explaining to do to my family and friends saying I didn’t stand up.
“I also knew that was the only way I was going to go to college because I didn’t have another avenue. I hoped that it would die down.”
Not exactly. As Narcisse sat in his classroom, paper airplanes zoomed in from somewhere below radar and landed on or near his desk.
“They were flying all over the place,” he said.
The airplanes had writing on the side. Let’s just say the message wasn’t “Fly the Friendly Skies of United.”
“It was written on the outside where I could see it,” Narcisse said. “I said, ‘I’m going to keep this for posterity.’ I guess I was expecting the instructor to say something, but he didn’t.”
Narcisse lost the planes in Hurricane Betsy, but he never let anger consume him, which he said was a mysterious blessing from God.
“I didn’t have anger,” he said. “All I just wanted was this to stop so I could study. I think God chose us to do this, for whatever reason. I had my rosary in my pocket, and I would pretend I was holding something. People would never know I was praying with my rosary in my pocket.”
Always willing to help
When he and several other students struggled with their math assignments, Narcisse went back to St. Aug and explained the situation to Josephite Father Eugene McManus, a math whiz.
“He was a brilliant man,” Narcisse said. “I told him, ‘Father, we’re having some problems, could you help us?’ And he said, ‘Sure, just come after I eat.’”
So several evenings a week, Narcisse and his friends got extra math tutorials from another priest who changed his life. “The whole classroom was full,” Narcisse said.
Narcisse said of the 55 African-American students who started in 1958 and faced such monumental social obstacles, Louise Williams Arnolie was the only one who finished in four years. UNO renamed the cafeteria in her honor in 2013, significant because the cafeteria in 1958 was run by a private contractor and thus segregated. UNO also gave each member of the original class a letter of apology.
It took Narcisse a little longer than Arnolie to complete his college studies. He joined the Air Force, returned to New Orleans and got married, and then began his working career of 40 years with the Louisiana Department of Transportation.
“Something just kept gnawing at me – ‘You gotta finish, you gotta go back,’” he said. “I was able to use my GI bill to help pay for tuition. My motto was, if I’m paying my money, I’m not going to fail. And I didn’t fail a thing after that.”
Narcisse and his late wife Adrienne had one daughter – Adina Narcisse Green – and one granddaughter, 17-year-old Jourdan. At a black history celebration at Corpus Christi this month, Green read her father’s testimony of his days at LSUNO to the assembly while her father sat in his wheelchair.
The value of education was never lost on the Narcisse family. Adina has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in higher education administration.
“I’m very proud of her,” Narcisse said. “She’s a good person. I’m more proud of her goodness. That’s the thing. And my granddaughter’s following in her footsteps.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.