Soledad O’Brien speaks a Southern Miss’ 50 years of integration program

The first African American students to be enrolled at The University of Southern Mississippi. Left: Gwendolyn Armstrong Chamberlain Right: Raylawni Branch

HATTIESBURG, MS (WHLT) – It’s been 50 years since the first African-American students enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Southern Miss celebrated that history with former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien as the keynote speaker.

“You look at these two women who desegregated the university…and the ability that they had to be pioneers at a time I think that being a pioneer would be awful,” O’Brien told our cameras before speaking to a crowd at Bennet Auditorium.

Gwendolyn Armstrong Chamberlain and Raylawni Branch were the first African Americans to step foot on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi as students. Their actions are why 50 years later, the school continues to celebrate black excellence.

“There’s no doubt that when you undertake a change like that, it’s challenging, it’s difficult. So the courage associated with their willingness to come and be apart of what was taking place was incredible,” said Jerry Defatta, Director of the Alumni Association.

Chamberlain and Branch’s admissions weren’t as violent as others had experienced around the state. Like the riots that greeted James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. However, it was still a brave step.

O’Brien, who is well known for her documentary series Black In America, says there’s a big importance to the celebration in 2015, “I find sometimes the very overheated rhetoric around race that we’re in right now national…sometimes I find it really depressing.” She goes on, “We’re really not just celebrating segregating. All of the conversation that we’ve been having have been conversations about where are we going. It’s not just here’s where we are whoo hoo! How do we need to do more and what is the more that we need to do?”

Now, the university is made up of over 30% African American students.

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