Former students share memories of Houma's Daigleville School for Native Americans during era of racial segregation

Kezia Setyawan
The Courier
Charlie Duthu, a 73-year-old Houma Indian, graduated from Daigleville School in 1966 with a high school diploma during a time of state and locally imposed racial segregation in Terrebonne Parish.

Charlie Duthu remembers his school days fondly despite the racially segregated arrangement enforced in Terrebonne Parish and across the South.

Duthu, a 73-year-old United Houma Nation tribal member, attended Daigleville School while the parish operated a public school system that segregated campuses three ways: all white, all Black, all Native American.

“I’m glad that the School Board allowed us to have our own school," said Duthu, who graduated from the Houma school in 1966. "There was a stigma back then against us."

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, but Terrebonne still divided students according to their skin color.

MORE:'There's a lack of trust': United Houma Nation works to reduce inequity, vaccine skepticism

Duthu was among the first generation of local Native American students who were able to receive a public-school education beyond eighth grade.

Daigleville, along East Main Street in the Houma neighborhood by the same name, was originally built in 1936 as an all-white school. In 1953, it became an elementary school for Native American students, according to the United Houma Nation. Four years later, it expanded added higher grade levels and became a high school.

Other all-Native American schools existed, most run by Methodist and Baptist missions for children in Dulac, Pointe-aux-Chenes and Dularge.

Local schools desegregated fully in 1969 through the Redman v. Terrebonne Parish School Board decision. After desegregation, the Daigleville School fell out of use until the United Houma Nation reached a lease agreement with the School Board beginning in 2015. 

Legal dispute

The school is now the subject of a lawsuit between the Terrebonne Parish School Board, United Houma Nation and Walter Guidry. It was run jointly by the United Houma Nation and the School Board under an agreement signed in May 2015, according to court documents. The tribe claims the board sold the school to Guidry for half of its appraised value without notifying the tribe, in violation of the agreement.

The tribe seeks to void the sale as unconstitutional and to have its property rights restored.

Earlier this month, the board voluntarily rescinded the sale, but mediation is ongoing. 

MORE:United Houma Nation sues Terrebonne School Board for alleged unauthorized sale of school

Teachers at Daigleville only had to receive a high school diploma, Duthu said. Howard Martin was principal and teacher, and his wife, Mavelia Martin, cooked lunch during Duthu’s time there. He recalled how the school had a designated area for students and teachers where they could smoke cigarettes. Duthu also pointed out how students from Pointe-aux-Chenes and Dulac would be picked up by Harold Toups on a small bus that looked like a pumpkin.

“Where else would you find that?” Duthu said. “It was family. There was no football team, no baseball team, but there was the closeness of the school. The teachers who taught us wanted to be there.”

'The only school we had'

Lawrence Verdin remembers how the Daigleville School was one of the only options for his education. Verdin, an 81-year-old United Houma Nation tribal member, attended in the 1950s before Daigleville offered high school classes. 

"Well, that’s the only school we had. We had to enjoy it, you know, because we couldn’t go nowhere else since it wasn’t mixed," Verdin said. "But I really enjoyed it, and I felt bad when the teacher told us they couldn’t teach us no more after the eighth grade."

Lawrence Verdin, 81, a member of the United Houma Nation, attended Daigleville School from sixth through eighth grade, before it expanded and offered high school classes.

That was as much education Verdin received. He then started working as a shrimper.

When then-Principal Chief Thomas Dardar signed the agreement with the School Board in 2015, Verdin remembers how Dardar wanted him to help restore the school after it fell into disarray. Verdin recalls how he pulled Superintendent Philip Martin aside when the commemorative key was given.  

"I pulled him aside and said, 'Mr. Martin, I don’t know you and you don’t know me,' but I said, 'Look -- we gonna fix the school. But after we fix the school, and I dare you, don't come try and take the school away from us.' In one way I was joking and one way I meant it," Verdin said. "'If you try to take that school away from us, that’s when I’m going to put my war paint on and you and I are going to have trouble.' And they did."

Verdin has led efforts to fix the hole in the roof that leaked water into his former classroom. He has recruited students to help clean and paint to fulfill volunteer hours for their high school graduation requirements. He wants the school to be a reminder how different things were. 

A piece of history

"For the kids that’s growing right now, I would wish we would still have the school and show the kids the school," Verdin said. "I want to show how we were raised when we grew up because we weren’t allowed to go nowhere."

MORE:United Houma Nation brings COVID vaccine info, household goods to elders by drive-through

Last October, Daigleville School was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which cited its community and historical significance in architecture, ethnic heritage and association with the education of Native American youths, according to the tribe's history of the school.

Historic Preservationist Jacob Foreman, who worked with the United Houma Nation to help the building earn the historic designation, said it is an important landmark representing segregation and desegregation in Terrebonne's public school system.

“You start to realize how important it is to save these types of buildings that could mean so much to maybe an underrepresented community in that area,” Foreman told the tribe previously.

Duthu has dreams for the school. He hopes to see the building restored and used by the community, perhaps serving the elderly in collaboration with the Terrebonne Council on Aging or storing tribal archives.

“My vision is that this can be a local Native American resource and center for all of the tribal people in the area,” Duthu said, “I am grateful for the attention that has been coming our way to see the struggle."