A look back at the people involved in Avoyelles desegregation case
Wed, 05/13/2015 - 06:00
By Raymond L. Daye
In the summer of 1988, U.S. District Judge Nauman Scott issued a desegregation order that closed five schools in Avoyelles and eliminated the high school grades in five others. One remaining high school, Moreauville, lost its historic identity and was renamed Avoyelles High. The parish’s two largest municipalities retained their high schools and their names.
Schools closed and shuttered were Hessmer High, Fifth Ward High, Bordelonville High, Simmesport Elementary and Evergreen Elementary.
High schools reduced to elementary schools were Cottonport, Simmesport, Plaucheville and Lafargue. Mansura High became a middle school feeding the Avoyelles High area. Simmesport High was renamed Riverside Elementary.
The plan allowed three high schools (Marksville, Avoyelles and Bunkie), three middle schools (Marksville, Mansura and Bunkie) and six elementary schools (Marksville, Bunkie, Cottonport, Riverside, Lafargue and Plaucheville).
Later, LaSAS -- a 7-12 charter high school -- was approved for the district, increasing the number of district high schools to four.
The middle schools in Bunkie, Marksville and Mansura were closed and the middle grades sent to the high schools, resulting in three more empty school campuses.
The district now has four 7-12 secondary schools and six elementary schools.
As the district looks with well-deserved anticipation toward the future, we take an opportunity to look to the past at some of the larger-than-life figures that played a part in this case.
U.S. District Judge Nauman Scott made his name and fame for his fight to rid this area of the last vestiges of racial segregation. He was appointed to the federal bench by Richard Nixon in 1970 and was active in Republican politics prior to being appointed as a district judge. He was an Army Air Corps officer in World War II and a leading attorney with the firm of Provosty, Sadler & Scott.
Scott was born in New Roads in 1916 and died in September 2001 at the age of 85.
He was posthumously elected to the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in February, joining another major figure in the parish’s desegregation case.
Louis Berry was the Alexandria attorney who picked up the dormant desegregation case and added a new lead plaintiff in Allen Holmes. His efforts led to the 1988 order that has governed the school district’s operations for the past 27 years.
Berry was inducted into the Political Hall of Fame in 1996 and died at the age of 83 in 1998.
When he was admitted to practice law in Louisiana in August 1945, he was the first black attorney admitted since 1927. He was the first black attorney in central Louisiana.
Burnell Lemoine had the unfortunate luck to be sitting in the superintendent’s office when the hammer fell in 1988. The desegregation order played a large role in Lemoine being fired -- a decision that was ultimately rescinded, but did not result in Lemoine returning as superintendent.
Lemoine’s career path led him to Lafayette, where he eventually became superintendent of that school system. He was inducted into the Acadian Museum as a “Living Legend” earlier this year.
Ronald Mayeux was the “just before” superintendent of the desegregation era.
Mayeux had become superintendent in 1980, oversaw several improvements in the district including the opening of two special schools -- Career Development Center in Cottonport and the special education Vocational-Technical School just outside of Bunkie. When those two schools had to close due to budget problems in 1986, Mayeux resigned with three years left on his contract. He was appointed to be principal of Hessmer High School, where he had graduated and spent much of his teaching career as a vo-ag teacher. He was the last principal of that school.
Mayeux’s superintendency occurred just before the desegregation order was issued.
He came back as superintendent in 2000 and retired in 2007, being replaced by Dwayne Lemoine who is regarded as a driving force in moving the stagnated court case forward to conclusion. Again, it was a case of his superintendency ending just before a major development in the case.
He is memorialized with the Village of Hessmer naming the community recreation complex in his honor and LaSAS naming their vocational/agricultural education building after him.
Dwayne Lemoine was an Avoyelles Parish boy who spent most of his career as an educator outside of this parish. He “came home” to end his public education career as superintendent, retiring earlier this school year.
Lemoine inherited a desegregation case in which little had changed in two decades. He asked “Why?” There being no good answer to the question, he and others in the case set about the business of forging a plan to move the case forward to the conclusion that was envisioned when the case was first opened by the Justice Department in the 1960’s and re-energized by Holmes and Berry in 1988 -- a public school district where all children have equal access to an education in a safe and appropriate facility.
The intent of the court case was to eliminate “poor schools” and “rich schools” from the vocabulary -- to guarantee that the district’s financial resources were fairly and equitably used to benefit all schools in the district.
Now we can look to the future.