Until 1999, a barbed wire fence divided the University from the impoverished and primarily black community of Old South Baton Rouge.
The neighborhood, known as “the Bottom,” encompasses about three square miles between the University and downtown Baton Rouge. It has been blighted by poverty, failing businesses and crime since the 1960s.
The Interstate 10 corridor was built through the heart of Old South Baton Rouge in the 1960s, and the neighborhood never recovered. Dilapidated shotgun houses, empty lots and run-down convenience stores now sit a stone’s throw from the University’s North Gate.
Before desegregation and the development of the interstate, Old South Baton Rouge was a bustling, multi-ethnic next-door-neighbor that LSU ignored. It was home to the nation’s first bus boycott and the beginning of the civil rights movement. The community was also an entertainment hub: blues musician Tabby Thomas was born there, and other famous entertainers like Louis Armstrong frequented the community.
“By white economic standards, the neighborhood might be poor,” said education professor Petra Hendry, who has extensively studied and worked with the community and has written a book called “Old South Baton Rouge: The Roots of Hope.” “But it is so rich in other things.”
After decades of hostility between LSU and the deteriorating community, LSU’s Chancellor William Jenkins tried to mend the relationship in 1996 by starting the Community University Partnership, or CUP. But the program never reached its full promise because of the University’s budget crisis, which hit in 2008.
A decrepit neighborhood with poor people roaming the streets falls into the shadows of the University’s multi-million-dollar buildings and luxury condominiums.
BUILDING A HOME
Old South Baton Rouge was originally part of Baton Rouge’s Magnolia Mound Plantation, which spread across 900 acres to the Mississippi River in the late-1700s through 1800s. The plantation still sits on Nicholson Drive, now a historic landmark that occupies about 15 acres. After the Civil War, former black slaves moved into “the Bottom,” which had cheap property values because of its hilly topography and tendency to flood.
Italian immigrants came to Louisiana around the turn of the century and were also considered “colors.” By the 1920s, Italian and German immigrants populated Old South Baton Rouge along with black residents, despite Jim Crow laws that banned people from mingling with other races and demanded businesses be “separate but equal.”
Public education was rarely available for black and immigrant students until an order of nuns opened a free private school in the late 1800s. They later moved to St. Francis Xavier Church on South 12th Street, where it remains today.
The public McKinley High School, a two-story brick building that has kept its location just north of LSU, was built in 1927 and was the fourth high school in the state for black students. It offered both vocational training and college-prep classes, including Latin, music, chemistry and math. McKinley has remained a pillar of the community, according to Hendry.
Many of McKinley’s graduates also became Louisiana’s first college graduates of color, though LSU kept its doors locked to them. In 1953, A.P. Tureaud became the University’s first black undergraduate student. But discrimination forced Tureaud to leave before the semester ended, and the first group of black student graduates didn’t enroll at the University until 1964.
Despite prejudice, the neighborhood flourished.
Businesses boomed. Faith inspired the neighborhood, as church after church was built. Entertainers flocked to Baton Rouge — everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Duke Ellington. Old South Baton Rouge was a flourishing community that produced doctors and lawyers.
One of the most well-known neighborhood staples was Delpit’s Chicken Shack, which opened in the mid-1930s on East Boulevard. Delpit’s Chicken Shack is still open today, with two different locations.
Joe Delpit, the son of Chicken Shack owner Thomas Delpit, remembered white people eating there despite segregation because the food “was just that good.” He received autographs from Sam Cooke, James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner whenever they passed through his family’s restaurant.
“I suppose people was poor, but you never knew nobody that was poor because on Sundays, people would dress up and on weekends, they would go out, you know, and [enjoyed] a real great social life,” Delpit said in an interview in Hendry’s book.
In 1953, black activists held the nation’s first bus boycott in Old South Baton Rouge. It inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to lead his own in Montgomery, Ala.
“Baton Rouge is often seen as a stepchild to New Orleans,” Hendry said. “I would disagree with that. We were home to the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
I-10, DESEGREGATION AND THE EXODUS
“The irony of desegregation” in the 1960s, as Hendry calls it, helped lead to Old South Baton Rouge’s decline later in the ’60s and ’70s.
Once black people could venture into other neighborhoods, find better jobs and create new opportunities, many left. Traditionally black businesses lost their customers and were forced to close or relocate.
Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials chose to build Interstate-10 through the core of Old South Baton Rouge in the mid-1960s, in a move that Hendry called “geographic racism.” She explained that despite protests, highway officials wanted to build the interstate through the primarily black Old South Baton Rouge instead of a white or upper-class neighborhood. People from “the Bottom” pleaded for Interstate-10 to go somewhere else, but their voices were ignored, even in Washington, D.C.
Around 400 houses were demolished. The long-awaited St. Francis Xavier High School, only a few years old, was bulldozed, leaving the church to stand alone. The interstate cut off Old South Baton Rouge’s northeastern corner and severed the neighborhood in half.
“Putting the interstate through there was like the nail in the coffin,” said Cecile Guin, director of the Office of Social Service Research and Development in the University’s School of Social Work.
Crime spiked, property values dropped and the residents who remained in the neighborhood were the older people and those who could not afford to move elsewhere.
“We were the last people on the block to leave,” Rosella Williams told Hendry. “People would come during the night to take the pipes to sell for copper. We would hear the rattling on the pipes and we’d say ‘we haven’t gone yet.’ This would let them know they couldn’t destroy our house yet.”
The neighborhood has not bounced back.
“The faith-based community is probably what’s given a lot of people in the area hope or belief that it can be better,” Guin said. Old South Baton Rouge was home to 43 churches in 2009, according to Hendry.
Some people remain in Old South Baton Rouge because they don’t have the resources to move elsewhere, while others stay because it’s home, Hendry said.
“There’s something to be said for living in a 150-year-old house and having your garden in the backyard,” she said.
COMMUNITY PARTNER OR IVORY TOWER?
The University has only changed its approach toward the neighborhood in the past 20 years.
Jenkins assembled faculty members in 1996 to figure out ways to work with Old South Baton Rouge. Guin led the grant writing, and the University received grant money about four years later to start CUP.
When Mark Emmert became LSU’s chancellor in 1999 and discovered barbed wire separated the University from its neighbor, “he couldn’t get people over there fast enough to start moving it,” laughed Guin, who has pictures of it in her office.
The University used to send students to poll residents about their neighborhood, “taking information from the community but not giving back,” Guin said. Children who grew up just streets away from campus never attended LSU football games or swam in the Huey P. Long Fieldhouse Pool or felt welcome there, she said.
“LSU just used Old South Baton Rouge as kind of a laboratory, and there still is some hostility about that,” Guin said.
CUP started creating many programs and initiatives, but Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the University’s budget crisis that began in 2008 made it difficult to continue the plans. The only project CUP has sustained is a twice-a-year Saturday volunteer effort where students help rebuild homes.
“We’re not the folks in the ivory tower who have all the information,” said Brandon Smith, Community Affairs liaison and External Partnerships officer. “We’re also here to learn from the community and to improve what we do.”
Each chancellor uses their interests to tailor the partnership, Smith said. LSU President F. King Alexander hopes to spread the idea that the University is accessible to people from all walks of life, according to Smith.
In the wake of the University’s lack of ability to help, other people and programs have stepped up to help the community get back on its feet. The Old South Baton Rouge Strategic Neighborhood Revitalization and Economic Development Plan includes adding a vocational skills academy, creating parks and integrating LSU’s campus with the neighborhood.
Hendry said a fear lingers in Old South Baton Rouge that gentrification will happen, especially with campus being so near.
“There’s a fear that the neighborhood is being swallowed up by LSU,” she said.
Smith said the makeup of campus has changed as more black, minority and female students have enrolled. In his eyes, the University now has a different face to the community.
“There’s still animosity, but healing takes time,” Hendry said. “Change takes time.”