Nearly 50 years ago, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong Chamberlain and Raylawni Branch showed up for class in the fall of 1965 at The University of Southern Mississippi as the school’s first African-American students.
On Friday, Sept. 6 the two returned to be honored for their important place in the institution’s history with the dedication of Armstrong-Branch Plaza, located between the Liberal Arts Building and Joseph Green Hall on the Hattiesburg campus. Southern Miss President Rodney Bennett and Southern District Transportation Commissioner Tom King, a Southern Miss alum, were among the dignitaries on hand for the event.
Joining Dr. Bennett and King in leading the dedication and ribbon cutting for the plaza were Southern Miss President Emeritus Aubrey Lucas and Vice President for Student Affairs Joe Paul.
The plaza, funded in part through a grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), includes brick paving, decorative lighting, benches, bike racks, trash receptacles and emergency call stations. The project is ADA-compliant and features landscaping and irrigation along the corridor.
Dr. Bennett praised the two for their bravery and determination in doing something “splendidly extraordinary” by engaging in what is now an ordinary act for many, regardless of the color of their skin – attending college. “They forever changed the USM story,” he said.
In his invocation, Lucas said what Chamberlain and Branch did in bringing a legacy of diversity to the university taught the Southern Miss family “how to love our alma mater unconditionally.”
Jazmyne Butler, who served as Student Government Association President last year, also praised the two for their “courage, bravery and determination.” She and several SGA senators crafted legislation calling for Chamberlain and Branch to be honored by having the plaza bear their name. The proposal was approved by then interim President Lucas and later supported by Dr. Bennett when he became president April 1.
The late Clyde Kennard was the first African American who attempted to integrate the university in the late 1950s. He was denied admission three times, and was later sentenced to prison for allegedly stealing chicken feed in what was believed by many to be a trumped up charge to thwart his efforts to enroll at Southern Miss. He was exonerated in 2006.
Branch believes the sacrifice made by Kennard helped pave the way for she and Chamberlain to break the color barrier at Southern Miss. “What he (Kennard) did made it so much easier for Elaine and I,” Branch said.
She noted the naming of Dr. Bennett, the first African-American president of the university, as another sign of progress at the university and in Mississippi in the area of diversity. “I hope he has a long and successful tenure like Dr. Lucas,” she said.
Dr. Kevin Green, a visiting professor of history at Southern Miss and an expert on the civil rights movement, said it was appropriate for the university to honor Chamberlain and Branch in such a manner. “It’s a pretty powerful moment in the life of the university,” he said.
For Chamberlain, the recognition bestowed upon her and Branch is one for which she will be “eternally grateful.”
“I’m so very pleased and very proud to have been a part of the university’s history,” Armstrong said. “It warms my heart to see the giant steps that the university has made since September of 1965.”