Hattiesburg natives talk about Southern Miss integration

By Karrie Leggett – email | bio

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -  1965 was a year Gwendolyn Chamberlain and Raylawni Branch will never forget. As the first black students in 1965, Southern Miss integrated. A decision, which according to Chamberlain was not an easy one.

"Even though there was the possibility of bodily harm or injury," said Chamberlain.

"We put our lives on the line. Each of us had six bodyguards," said Branch.

Despite  that Chamberlain said she was determined in her choice to continue at Southern Miss.

"It was still something that I had to do, but I also wanted to do," said Chamberlain.

Something she had to do in order to  show that African Americans were the same at a time when some fought against their equality.

"To understand that we wanted the same things that we were no less. So, for those reasons I decided this was an opportunity as well as something that I should do.," said Chamberlain.

But the acceptance Chamberlain sought didn't come without difficulty.

"My experience in class was unique. If I walked into a classroom where students were already seated, and I sat among them in the front they would all get up and move to the back. If waited until just before the bell sounded ,and I sat among the students in the back they got up and all moved to the front," said Chamberlain.

Raylawni says her wearisome days at southern miss were a challenge and would have ended abruptly if it were not for the support of Chamberlain.

"Lonely, hard, a lot of crying days, tired and if it had not been for Elaine [Chamberlain] I don't know if I would have made it," said Branch.

But making it is exactly what both women did. Both became successful in their careers, but despite being known as pioneers at Southern Miss they still feel full integration is yet to be achieved.

"I don't think we have integrated the university as of yet," said Branch.

Chamberlain says she witness first hand the progress left to made.

"I stood in the Cochran center to see how students were interacting. I saw a group of black students here . I saw a group of white students there, but I never saw them mingling together," said Chamberlain.

Whether or not Chamberlain and Branch feel integration is complete, breaking segregation barriers at southern miss was attained because of them.

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