Black History Month: The First African American to integrate the University of Southern Mississippi

Published: Feb. 12, 2023 at 11:39 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - If you visit the University of Southern Mississippi today, you will see thousands of African American students enrolled at the university. However, that was not always the case.

Fifty-eight years ago, Raylawni Branch and Gwendolyn Armstrong took the brave step to desegregate the public university, paving the way for future African American students to learn at USM.

“I don’t know if I just didn’t care anymore or if I was determined to do all I could do to make a change,” said Branch.

She is now 82 years old and was born and raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Branch says growing up, she knew at an early age she wanted to create change, make a difference in her community, and get a good education.

“I stayed here after high school, being married, had some problems, husband problems, and decided I needed to do something else,” Branch said. “So in 1965, the golden opportunity presented itself.”

After graduating high school, Branch says she was eager to further her education and make a better life for herself and her family.

“Bad things had happened,” said Branch. “People died when James Meredith went to Ole Miss.”

Knowing the dangers of even attempting to enroll at any public university in Mississippi, 24-year-old Raylawni Branch and 18-year-old Gwendolyn Armstrong-Chamberlain both applied and were accepted into the University of Southern Mississippi in the fall of 1964.

She admits making history didn’t come without a challenge. Branch says their first day arriving on campus. They were both escorted by six bodyguards.

“I really didn’t care what they called me, but I knew what to do to try to save myself,” said Branch.

William D. McCain was the president of the university during that time. Branch says McCain addressed the student body in the Bennett Auditorium later that day to ease tensions after getting threats from local Ku Klux Klan groups.

“Basically, he said, the university will not be disturbed, everything will go on as usual, and the clan was going to have a rally on campus and burn a cross, " said Branch. “So he must have been a grand dragon because he said, ‘Oh no, you won’t burn any crosses on this campus.’”

Because of the dangerous situation involving James Meredith integrating Ole Miss in Oxford, Branch says they were directed to reach out to the President of the United States if they experienced any violent pushback.

“If we got into trouble,” said Branch. “We were supposed to call the White House and ask to speak to Mr. Shiber at the time, who was the attorney general, and they immediately put us through.”

Branch attended one year at USM but says her mission in those 12 months was completed. She was able to open doors for future African American students to achieve a quality education at the university.

“I just never had time to be afraid because fear freezes you and keeps you from doing what you need to do, and that’s the way I felt about USM,” Branch said.

After leaving the University, Branch got a full scholarship to St. John School of Nursing in New York.

She later joined the United States Air Force, where she served more than twenty-six years, but this history maker says Southern Miss still holds a special place in her heart. That is why she is still currently involved in programs at the university today.

“I’m on the human rights advisory board, and those students are just so wonderful,” said Branch. “I love working with students. I tutor if a student needs tutoring. I mentor because people’s feelings get hurt; they get depressed.”

A memorial marker on campus was also dedicated in 2013 to both Mrs. Branch and Mrs. Armstrong.

Branch says in order to make a change; sometimes you simply have to be the change.

“Somebody has to be the first somebody because you know it’s going help somebody like you and me,” said Branch.

The university is now home to more than 14,000 students from all across Mississippi in 47 states and 63 countries, and nearly 29 percent of them are African Americans. All because of the sacrifices and contributions of Mrs. Branch and Mrs. Armstrong.

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