The Desegregation of Tulane University

Cheryl V. Cunningham

In her 1982 thesis, Cunningham provides excellent summaries of the role of civil rights attorney John P. Nelson Jr. in making the case for desegregation, the legal basis for Tulane's status as a public institution, and the chicanery of Tulane's board of administrators, who argued that Tulane was not a state actor and thus not subject to the proscriptions of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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In 1938 the Supreme Court set the federal judiciary on a course that would eventually end segregation in public education.  With the Brown decision in 1954, the courts nullified "separate but equal" in public education at every level.

Private schools did not fall entirely outside the force of these landmark decisions.  Following Brown, the federal courts warned that any institution that had some state support or control also fell under the demands of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Tulane University was one such institution.  Tulane, in 1961, still refused to admit black students.  The university's admissions policy stemmed partly from racial restrictions imposed in 1884 by its benefactor, but was also maintained by a board reluctant to challenge the city's tradition of segregation.

One man not so reluctant was John Nelson.  He was hired by Rosa Keller, a prominent New Orleanian, who had been active in race relations since World War II.  Nelson's imaginative lawsuit, first heard in 1961 by J. Skelly Wright, proved that Tulane was a quasi-public institution amenable to the Fourteenth Amendment.  Nelson's victory pushed the Tulane board into a campaign designed to ensure private status for the university.  In a second trial before Frank B. Ellis in 1962, the board succeeded in reversing Wright's decision and then desegregated in 1963 before an appeal could be filed by the plaintiffs.

The federal court missed a chance to extend the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to private schools; instead, it ended a controversy at Tulane.  Ellis' decision restored the university's private status and allowed the board to claim it had voluntarily desegregated.  In the end, Tulane satisfied its restless faculty, regained its liberal reputation, and ensured continued foundation support.  It was a better university but only because John Nelson did for Tulane what its own board would not do.

Tulanelink is grateful to the Interlibrary Loan Department of the New Orleans Public Library for making this thesis available.  Pencil markings in the PDF image are those of a previous patron.  The thesis is displayed in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Note: Minor adjustments were made to the MS Word format to eliminate hyphenated and orphaned words; page numbers of the original are largely preserved.


|| Judge Frank Burton Ellis || Tradition of Discrimination || Judge Skelly Wright ||

|| Plessy v. Ferguson || Tulane History || Tulane and Reparations || Leland University ||

|| Randall Lee Gibson || Act 43 of 1884 || Louisiana Decision || The Myth of 1834 ||