On November 4, 1969, students are at Vernon High School were told to wear their best clothes to school tomorrow for picture day.
However, that is not what happened. Students from the black Vernon High School were bussed over to Leesville High School without warning where they would continue their education.
The change was not only shocking to the students and teachers at Vernon but the students and staff at Leesville High School, as well.
Vernon High School was home to multiple state championships in different sports and was where people in the Leesville community and surrounding area – some city leaders and business owners – received their education.
The story of Vernon High School closing and being integrated into Leesville could have been a horrific one. Schools across the country had the military called in, riots and protests. However, the consolidation of Leesville and Vernon went as smooth as it could have at that time.
You can read the first-hand accounts of an educator, a Leesville student, the principal and a Vernon Student to see what they remember about that day half a century ago.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education changed the country. The Supreme Court ruled to desegregate the country, stating that separate is not equal.
Vernon High School, for example, received hand-me-down books and instruments from Leesville High School.
In a 2011 Leesville Daily Leader story written by Ronald Weathersby, he told the story of former Vernon High School teacher Maxine Gunn, who recalled black students from all across the parish having to walk past several different schools to get to their only education option.
“I don’t remember what year it took place, but there was a vehicle, not a bus but a truck with benches sent out to a neighborhood near Rosepine to pick up children so they could go to school," Gunn said in the previous story.
In 1955, a second opinion was handed down on Brown v. Board of Education, allowing lower courts to rule on segregation cases. The original ruling stated that desegregation needed to happen "with all deliberate speed" but that did not mean it was happening fast.
For years, Southern states used "Freedom of Choice" to remain segregated, but the Court case Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education stated, "The obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools."
VERNON HIGH SCHOOL CLOSES
A week later, Vernon High School shut its doors. Students and teachers were brought over to Leesville High School with no warning. Very few people at Leesville knew what was going on either.
For the first year, black students remained with their teachers from Vernon High School at Leesville High School to allow for an easier transition.
According to a Leesville Daily Leader article from November 10, 1969, Superintendent Curtis Bradshaw said Leesville had purchased mobile classrooms and was planning on building additional rooms to the existing school.
Unlike a lot of the areas in the state and country, students in Vernon Parish did not have the "white flight" option, where white students would leave the newly segregated schools to go to private schools.
In the November 10 article, Bradshaw addressed students from Leesville transferring to other schools, such as Simpson, Anacoco or Pickering. Freedom of Choice was no longer legal, and students could not transfer to other schools.
There were no recorded violent incidents recorded at the high school, while some other schools, such as Tioga High School, fought segregation until 1981.
Where Vernon High School sat now stands Vernon Middle School.
VERNON HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Robert Blow could play ball.
A force at Vernon High School on the basketball court, Blow was a senior when Vernon High School shut its doors.
"We came to school one day, and the principal announced that he wanted us to come to school prepared to take pictures the next day," he said. "We went to school the next day and were bussed to Leesville High School. That was integration for us. That's exactly how it happened. Before that, a classmate of mine, Mose Tinsley, and I were the first black basketball players to go to Leesville. The coach from Leesville had contacted us before we were bussed over there. Mose and I were actually going to school at Vernon High School and Leesville High School at the same time for a week and a half. It was all in disarray. For a young kid who had not really been anywhere, it was surreal. You really didn't think about it, because when you're in the middle of a storm, you don't actually think about the reason for the storm. You just think about surviving the storm.
"A lot of people didn't want us there, and we weren't ready to be over there. It was an eye opener for everybody."
Blow did not realize it at the time, but he was practicing with the team because of the ensuing integration.
"Now as I reflect on it after 50 years, I've thought about this stuff a lot," he said. "As an adult, I can put it in perspective. It tells me that the coaches knew this was going to happen. They were preparing themselves and trying to make a smooth transition for the players. The season was just starting, and to their benefit, we were there so they could get acclimated to the program. It made me feel good, but in another way, I was leaving my school of the last 11 years. It was just a surreal moment."
The Leesville Wampus Cats went 23-11 that season and lost to eventual state champion DeRidder in the playoffs. Despite not having a fairytale ending, Blow realizes that saving grace that basketball was that season.
"I feel that Mose and I were very lucky that we had basketball, because in the middle of all that turmoil and stuff, we did have that to cling to," Blow said. "As a member of the team, whether those guys wanted us there or not, and I'm sure some of the guys did not because we took their spots, we had a team to go to. We had a common goal. For that season, we went 11-0 in district and had an amazing season. It was place for us to take refuge while all this craziness was going on."
Thinking back to his time at Leesville High School, a pair of men at the school bring back fond memories.
"There are several things that I think about over these 50 years that stick with me," he said. "Coach Richard Reese, who was a nice guy to us because not everyone was very nice, and a history teacher by the name of Billy Crawford. I remember sitting down with him after class, and he was a very emotional guy. He was almost in tears sitting with us because he was concerned about our feeling as a result of the way we were being treated over there. He was concerned about us, and we sat in almost tears several times. Some of the instances at the places we went to play at stick with me. There were some mean spirited moments, but we let it flow on the basketball court and ignored it."
Blow remembers Vernon High School as home. It was the place he grew up and shaped him into person he his.
"It was one of the best schools," he said. "The chorus won state championships almost every year, and the football didn't win state every year but was at the top of game every year. It was our school and our home. It was great to be an A school, and it was a big loss. There was such a sense of community, because you had Vernon High School on one side of the railroad tracks, as they say, and Leesville High School on the other. It was our home. It was amazing. We had great teachers, and I see some of the principals and teachers to this day."
Blow graduated from Northwestern State University and joined the Atlanta Fire Department in 1980. He retired 26 years later and moved back to Leesville 12 years ago. He is involved in community service in the area.
Blow says Vernon Parish and Leesville is home for him, and his experiences in the area are mostly positive.
"Vernon Parish was like every other parish in Louisiana," Blow said. "I'm reflecting back in hindsight because during the time, I didn't think about that stuff during the time. I was a 15-year-old kid. Now as an adult, I look back on it as it was. There was racism but what I knew as 15-year-old, everything was OK. Life was good. We were family of 10, and we were poor. But I don't ever remember not being happy."
LEESVILLE HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER
Billy Crawford was a young teacher at Leesville High School when Vernon High School was shut down.
Crawford's experience at other schools prepared him – as much as he could be – for the big change.
He was a social studies teacher working at Leesville High School when, on November 5, 1969, he heard a noise outside of his door.
"In the middle of the morning, around 9 or 10 o'clock, I heard some people walking down the hallways, and it was group of black kids walking down the hall," he said. "They were well dressed and not making any noise. That was the first time that I knew the schools were going to be integrated. I was totally surprised."
It was not immediate integration, however. Students from Vernon stayed with their previous teachers to ease the transition for the year.
"That first year, they stayed in their own classrooms with their own teachers," he said. "It was well planned. We taught six, hour long periods and had one planning period. They had it organized where the teachers would stay with their kids like they were teaching at Vernon and would move around to vacant periods. If I had fifth period off, I had to get out of my room for the teachers and kids. They stayed with their own teachers, academically, all year.
"All sports teams, bands and other extra-curriculars were mixed. As far as the teaching, they stayed with their teachers. The next year, it was all integrated."
Crawford taught at a volunteer transitional school prior to going to Leesville where he taught an integrated classroom.
"The first year I taught, there was no opening at Leesville High School," he said. "Superintendent Curtis Bradshaw wanted to put me there, but it didn't work out. I taught the sixth grade and taught four black kids. It was a contained class with 32 kids. I've never been a prejudice person. I grew up to accept everybody and never had any racism in me. It never was and never will be."
Crawford credits the administration for the making the transition as seamless as it could be, even after the initial year.
"After that first year, a teacher, who was a retired military guy, asked me to help sponsor the student council," he said. "The student council is a representation of the students, so that first year, we worked through the student council. I worked with all the kids. A couple of years later, we got a new principal named Dr. (H. Lynn) Russell. He came in from the state department in 1972. He was a real leader. He brought in Coach (Foster) Thomas, who was the head football coach at Vernon High School. He was a great, great man. Coach Thomas had gone to Vernon and was in the military. He came in as the disciplinarian. Dr. Russell built a really strong administrative team."
Later, Crawford would be put in a unique position to help the students of Leesville learn about each other.
Dr. Russell asked Crawford to start a course to let the kids learn anything they want.
"We decided to teach sociology and psychology, a semester each," he said. "It was mainly made up of seniors. Every semester, the kids told me what they wanted to be taught. It gave us a chance to talk about prejudice and socialization. I think that had a big influence on the black and white seniors because they got to know each other. Prejudice only comes when you don't know somebody. Once you develop a personal relationship, all that flies out the window. We got the leaders through this course."
There were no major incidents reported after integration, and Crawford attributes that to the military in the area.
"We are a military community," he said. "A lot of the kids had already been integrated. The South was the only people who hadn't yet. We were suppose to do it in 1954 and it wasn't done. It went really smooth, actually."
Crawford has been a big part of keeping the stories and facts about Vernon High School and Leesville High School alive and well. He says that its taken 50 years to talk about that day because no one talks about it anymore.
"It went well," he said. "If you go to homecoming, black and white people from 40 or 50 years ago are best friends. At first, we didn't know each other.
"I was a part of it. I was there first-hand, and it's a big success story."
LEESVILLE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Tony McDonald had a lot on his mind in 1969 with a war going on overseas and country changing in front of his eyes in different ways.
McDonald was a freshman when the students from Vernon High School were put on a bus and sent to Leesville High School without warning.
"It was unexpected, for sure, because none of us had any idea of what was going to happen with the students or faculty," he said. "In hindsight, we realized the faculty did not know either. The busses pulled up, and that morning, I was sitting in the lobby by the trophy case, and the kids got off. We discovered in homeroom that they closed down Vernon High School and that they shipped all the students and some of the faculty over to Leesville High School. Vernon was no more."
McDonald grew up in a military family, so the idea of sharing a classroom with black students was not foreign or uncomfortable for him.
McDonald recalls having more on his mind at the time than just integration of the schools.
"I was an Army brat, and we came here from Germany," he said. "I was always in integrated schools, because of that. Of course, at the time, I was a freshman in high school and really had no clue about the politics. We got into that more as the years went on because it was thrust upon us. In 1969, there was a lot going on. Woodstock just happened and the Vietnam War was on TV every night. It was a turbulent time, socially. We were just high school kids trying to get through high school and hoping to not get drafted to go to war. Then this happened. I can remember not being so focused on the racial politics because I knew there were things happening in the world. I was concerned with what was happening in Vietnam because my dad was military, and I was approaching the draft age. Looking back, with one or two minor exceptions, the kids from both sides handled it pretty well. There were some adults and faculty that didn't, for various reasons. We got through it pretty darn well, from my memory and research over the last few years. There were communities in Louisiana that didn't handle it well. They had violence in the streets and schools shutting down. We didn't really have that."
McDonald has been a vital part of bringing the story of Vernon High School shutting down to the forefront, working with different media outlets and putting together an art exhibit.
Throughout his research, he can comprehend why the school district did things the way it did.
"I used to upset about the way it was done, because the people that became my friends, had Vernon High School taken away from them," he said. "I was mad they did it the way they did it, by just announcing one day that tomorrow is photo day and to wear your best clothes. Then I realized, over the last year, if they had done it any other way, it wouldn't have went as well. If they had announced it in the paper or radio that next month we're going to close down the black school and integrate it with the white school, there would have been some severe reactions by the community."
According to his research, McDonald believes only a handful of people actually knew what was on the horizon.
"From what I can determine, no one knew about this except about four people," he said. "I have friends whose parents were school board members and faculty at Leesville and Leesville Junior High. None of them had any idea that it was going to happen until the day it happened. I think the reason for that was two things – they didn't want the word to get out, so there wouldn't be a negative backlash and it gave them plausible deniability. They could say we didn't know this. They were criticized, and a lot of them lost their spot on the school board because of this. There were some crosses burned in people's yards that night that are school board members. They could honestly say that the feds came in and did this, and I had no idea about it. It was done with a lot of secrecy and very quickly."
The exhibit and research started after McDonald was having a conversation last year with former classmates LeRoy Lambert and David Williams. They realized the 50th anniversary was approaching and that it had not been recognized over time.
"We didn't want to make it a celebration because there wasn't anything to celebrate," he said. "Lets put a pin in it, hang it up and let people understand what happened. I said if we're going to do this, let me call my friends that I know are a part of Vernon and see what they think. I went and talked to several people that I'm friends with that were in Vernon and part of it. I said 'I don't want to come off as some white guy trying to make something out of this. If you don't think it's a good idea, we'll fold our tent and go away, but if you would like for us to commemorate, recognize and document a little more, historically, what happened, this is what we'll do.' One hundred percent of the people I talked to said yes."
The exhibit for Vernon High School is available at GALLERY ONE ElllEVEN until the week before Thanksgiving. The displays will then be turned over to the Vernon High School Alumni Association for future projects.
JUNIOR HIGH TEACHER, WIFE TO HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL
Betty Westerchil had a unique prospective of the the Vernon High School-Leesville High School consolidation.
Westerchil was a teacher in the junior high and was married to the Leesville High School Principal, Joe Westerchil.
"As you know, after 50 years, it's difficult to remember what exactly happened," she said. "I do remember the preparation. My husband had a job to do there, and Mr. (Curtis) Bradshaw was the superintendent at that time. What he said pretty much went. My husband was given the instructions of how it was going to be done, and he was expected to carry that out, even though he didn't completely agree with it. I can remember him meeting Allen Rushen at Vernon High School. He was very much admired and respected. I remember he went to his house the night before and together, they made preparations on how it would be done. Joe had great respect for Rushen, and he did a great job and was loved by all the students.
"I think it went as well as it possibly could under the circumstances that everybody had to deal with at that time."
Leesville Junior High was also integrated on that day, and Westerchil had new co-workers and students.
"I remember in the junior high, they had to distribute the teachers out from Vernon Elementary to our schools," she said. "We had four of the teachers that came, and they were very strong teachers. They were excellent teachers. They were well respected, and we all worked together quite well.
"We teachers that were there did all we could to make the students feel welcomed and treated them like all the other students. That was my impression and what I tried to do."
Westerchil recalls a tough time during the integration, but overall, she remembers it as a regular school.
"There was one period of time that was difficult, but once we got over that, I think things went smoothly," she said. "I came to love those students, and I think they came to respect and love me, as well. Except one period of time, there was a disturbance, but we worked through that. It settled back down, and it was regular school. The students that came to us were well prepared and right along. They came in and we kept going."
Joe Westerchil passed away 24 years ago, and Betty says he the perfect person to have in that position at Leesville High School.
"Some people liked him very much," she said. "The strong teachers like him a lot. He was a strong disciplinarian. He was very fair, and I think the students will tell you that, too, in most cases. I think he was a good person to be in that position at that time. He was a strong person and made plans. He knew how he was going to handle it when they came and saw it through."
Although he oversaw the school, Joe Westerchil did not aid in many plans in the process.
"Being told what we had to do, he didn't have any input," she said. "All of us didn't agree with them being told they were getting their pictures taken and brought over by bus. But, we didn't have any input on that in order to change it. We had to take what we were given and make the best out of it. I think it turned out well."
Westerchil served for 16 years on the school board, and her in the board brought Vernon High School back into use as the Vernon Elementary. Westerchil would also eventually became Mayor of Leesville in 2006.