CHSE Honors One of the First African-American Master's Graduates of LSU

02/06/14

Payne“All you need is love.”

Pearl Payne, one of the first black females to graduate from LSU with a Masters of Education in 1956, would probably agree that John Lennon got it right when he said, “All you need is love.” Love seems to be a recurring theme throughout Payne’s life: love for family, for teaching, for continuing education, and for LSU weave the fabric of her amazing life that includes 37 years of teaching, multiple degrees and professional certifications and a rekindled relationship with LSU that dates back to a challenging time during the Civil Rights Era.

Born July 12, 1918, Payne is a native of Natchitoches, La. and knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was in the fifth grade. She was captivated by a former teacher from Memphis who cared for students and would tell the class about things they had never seen before…sparking curiosity and encouraging learning.  To someone from a rural community, learning about new things …like traffic lights were very interesting and Payne soaked it all in.  Payne sums up her own teaching philosophy as loving each and every child she taught; when a teacher loves her children, they love her back, learning more when a foundation is built on mutual respect, kindness, and love.

“I always had a saying: I never taught a child I did not like,” said Payne.

At a recent doctor visit, Payne ran into a former student. He immediately recounted a story to Payne and her daughter, Carolyn, about the time she bought his entire class their own set of marbles to end student bickering that often occurred when they played marbles before and after school. She was happy that the small gesture she made many years ago had touched her student enough for him to remember it and tell the story some 50 years later.

“I could have scolded my class [when they misbehaved], but instead I gave every one a five cent bag of marbles and they were so proud of those marbles,” said Payne. “And by showing them love, they will try to please you; so that’s why I really enjoyed my career in teaching. I liked the children, and if they had a problem, it was my problem and I helped them through it.”

Indeed, the bond between Payne and her former students is undeniable, as she loves to recount holidays when former students would come by for a quick visit or to seek her approval for their most recent life accomplishments.

The mother of 3 children, grandmother and great grandmother to 19, Payne was married 59 years to the late Lutrill Payne, Sr. The Paynes are pivotal figures in LSU’s history. In 1951, Mr. Payne, with the help of attorney A.P. Tureaud Sr. of New Orleans, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to integrate the LSU Graduate School and ultimately won a judgment in his favor, enabling Lutrill Payne to be the first African-American to attend graduate school at LSU and paving the way for his wife, and many other African-American students to attend LSU.

According to Payne, every student applicant had to write a personal statement to be admitted to LSU’s graduate school. She vividly remembers what she chose to write on her postcard-sized paper. “I wanted to come to get a master’s degree to improve so I could better take care of students in my classroom,” said Payne. She remembers writing, “LSU is in the state where I’m living and I work in a school in this state so I want to attend the state’s best university.”

Her memories of LSU during the early and mid-fifties are fond.

“I remember eating lunch beside the faculty members and interacting with students of other races and nationalities,” said Payne.  “I had a fine experience. They didn’t treat me any differently.”

She also recalls carpooling with several fellow students from Natchitoches to Baton Rouge, living in the dorms during summer sessions, studying with her classmates, and a particularly difficult professor.

“Dr. Fuller was never pleasant,” said Payne. “I had to present my report on teachers’ retirement. So everyone was shocked when he said ‘That’s the best I’ve ever heard on that topic.’” Despite the compliment, Payne says she made a B in Dr. Fuller’s class.

Payne’s pursuit of continuing education is impressive and indicative of her love for life-long learning. She obtained her post-graduate degree and several certifications while teaching and caring for her family. She began her teaching career in the rural schools of Natchitoches Parish near the Village of Powhatan, then went on to study at Peabody High School for one year before returning to Natchitoches Parish Training School which granted her High School Diploma in 1935. With encouragement from her superintendent, Payne continued her march toward earning her baccalaureate degree from what was then Grambling College, attending classes during the summer and even in Saturday sessions until she captured her first degree in 1948. She entered LSU in 1953 and obtained her Master’s Degree in Education and later earned her 30+ (over 30 academic credits beyond the Master’s Degree) from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. 

Payne retired from teaching after 37 years in the classroom, ending her distinguished teaching career as a mathematics teacher at Northwestern State University Laboratory School. 

“In 37 years, I never once sent a child to the principal’s office,” Payne said with wistfulness and pride.

Perhaps there is much that we can still learn from this wife, mother, educator, pioneer and consummate student. Payne’s life is marked by incredible examples of perseverance, achievement in the face of adversity, and the power of love.

Although she retired from teaching, she and her husband continued to work well into their 80s on various business and volunteer projects.

Payne has been back to LSU many times over the years.  She and Mr. Payne were active participants in events sponsored by the A. P. Turuead, Sr. Black Alumni Chapter at LSU.  Although Mr. Payne passed away in 1999, Pearl still tries to remain engaged with the Alumni Chapter.  Most recently, at the age of 95, she traveled to Baton Rouge in September 2013 to participate in a Chapter Reunion. 

True to her generous spirit, she also donated a scrapbook to LSU documenting more than 60 years of her and her husband’s achievements. Documents include records of their trailblazing effort to integrate LSU’s graduate school. Hill Memorial Library’s upcoming exhibit, The Relentless Pursuit of “Equal:” Integrating LSU includes an oral history from Payne and records from the scrapbook she donated.