Centenary College was among the last in Louisiana to integrate, admitting its first Black students in 1966.
Louisiana's oldest college has just granted tenure to a Black professor for the first time in almost 200 years, marking a racial milestone in its history. Centenary College of Louisiana held an event honoring the now-tenured associate professor Andia Augustin-Billy. The college was founded by enslavers and racism played a major part in denying a Black professor tenure in almost 200 years. “I think that’s the million-dollar question. It's something I know will be highlighted and discussed” at Centenary College, said college spokeswoman Kate Pedrotty. Augustin-Billy, known on campus as “Dr. A-B,” is an award-winning teacher of French and Francophone Studies. She also teaches African and Caribbean literature and postcolonial, women, gender, and sexuality studies, reported Yahoo News.
“The fact that a Black woman has earned tenure at Centenary in 2021, and that the decision was based on merit, and not upon color, is certainly a cause for celebration,” said Augustin-Billy, reported Centenary College. “While elated, I am painfully aware that it has taken us a long time to get there, and much remains to be done. This occasion should shed light on the urgency and necessity of having scholars and academics of color in U.S. colleges and universities to amplify and enrich students’ education, but most importantly, for the students to see the reflection of themselves in their professors.”
Augustin-Billy joined the Centenary faculty in 2015 after earning her Ph.D. in French language and literatures from Washington University in St. Louis. School archivist Chris Brown opines it was racism that denied a Black professor tenure for 196 years. “Structural and institutional and systemic racism has been present ever since the college was founded, largely by enslavers,” said Brown. “Any institution that is as old as Centenary, particularly one in the South, must take account of the role that racism played in its history,” said Christopher Holoman, president of the Methodist-affiliated college in Shreveport."As we move forward, Centenary is committed to full inclusion of all members of our community and working towards a just society.”
Centenary College's move is one in the right direction given its history. It was one of the last colleges in Louisiana to integrate, admitting Black students first in 1966, a good 16 years after Louisiana State University admitted its first black law student in 1950. Fred Bonner II, Centenary's first Black professor, said the college was “really trying to move the needle in a positive direction.” According to U.S. Education Department data, African Americans made up 13.3% of college students nationwide in 2019, while only 6% of faculty members. “From my own experience and the writing I've read and edited, for faculty of color one of the most important things is support,” says Bonner II.
Augustin-Billy herself found out she was the first Black person to be granted tenure at the college when she enquired about other tenured Black faculty with the archivist. She had wanted to thank them for 'paving her way' but was informed that there was no one. Augustin-Billy said she had recently met a 71-year-old who said all the Black people she knew had gone to Grambling State University, a historically Black institution despite it being nearly two hours away. "Centenary was not for us. ... We never felt like it was our space, our place," the woman told her, she recalled. “I’m hoping this story will spark very needed dialogue about having Black scholars in academia," said Augustin-Billy. "There has to be. There has to be.” According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the first two African Americans to win tenure at predominantly white schools did so in 1947 and 1952.