The U.S. Civil Rights Trail marks important landmarks, primarily in  Southern states, where activists challenged segregation in churches, courthouses, schools, and other sites in the 1950s and 1960s. In Louisiana, interpretive markers, each explaining the stories of the people who worked for equality and social justice and rewrote American history, may easily locate these sites.


Lafayette’s Civil Rights marker stands on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus on the corner of Rex Street and East St. Mary Boulevard. In the early 1950s, the school, then known as Southwestern Louisiana Institute (SLI), barred African Americans from attending. Four brave students — Clara Dell Constantine, Martha Jane Conway, Charles Vincent Singleton, and Shirley Taylor — attempted to enroll on September 15, 1953.

They were denied entrance to the school but decided to take their case to court. On January 4, 1954, Attorney Thurgood Marshall, who would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, and attorney and civil rights pioneer A.P. Tureaud filed a class-action complaint in U.S. District Court. The case was called Constantine v. SLI.

Three judges ruled on July 16, 1954, that SLI could not refuse to admit students based on race or color. Six days later, John Harold Taylor of Arnaudville became the first African American to enroll in SLI. In the fall, 80 African American students peacefully registered for classes, including Clara Dell Constantine and the other three plaintiffs.
SLI became the first state-supported, previously all-white undergraduate college in the Deep South to desegregate and the first undergraduate institution in the South to peacefully integrate.

It was not all roses for these students. The change took a long time to come in social situations. African American students didn’t have access to all student activities and organizations. In 1956, however, the Catholic Student Center hosted the Gulf States Newman Club, and both races were in attendance without incident. The Rev. Alexander O. Sigur of the Catholic Student Center encouraged black and white students to mix.

Christiana Smith of Carencro was the first African American to graduate from SLI

Later that spring, a 40-year-old teacher named Christiana Smith of Carencro was the first African American to graduate from SLI as a member of the Class of 1956. The Christiana Smith African-American Alumni Chapter was chartered in 1992 and raises funds for the Christiana Smith Endowed Scholarship, awarded yearly to African American students.

SLI became the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1960 and, in that decade, desegregated its athletic program. In 1966, USL allowed three African American athletes to its basketball team, and in 1968, African American students joined the football program.

The Civil Rights Marker

Lafayette Civil Rights Marker by Doug Dugas for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Lafayette Civil Rights Marker by Doug Dugas for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

On the 50th anniversary of SLI’s desegregation order, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette dedicated its Pillars of Progress Memorial, paying tribute to those first brave African American students. It became the ninth Civil Rights marker in Louisiana.

The names of the four plaintiffs appear on four pillars representing the principles of courage, faith, knowledge, and justice. On one of the plaques is written: “four who would change Southwestern forever,” who “would bravely blaze a path for others to follow.”

The Louisiana Civil Rights markers are steel six-feet-tall life-sized metal figures. The ULL marker stands in front of the four pillars.

The Louisiana Civil Rights Trail is partly supported by an African American Civil Rights grant from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. To learn more about the trail and Lafayette’s marker, click here.