Letter from Grambling

Written by Jane Ellis Morrow, Jane Trigère’s mother, during her time teachingat Grambling State University, Louisiana
Click here to view her other writings.

Dear Friends,

Having passed safely through Rural Retreat, Virginia, and Suburbia, Tennessee, and over Little Cornie Creek, Arkansas, as well as some larger streams, including the Mississippi, I greet you from Grambling, Louisiana. This is 1,550 miles from home, by the way Janie and I took.

Grambling is an isolated town surrounded by woods and farm land, some five miles from a large town named Ruston. The college is in the center of things here. It is a large, well-manicured campus with about 20 brick buildings, new and well-kept. There is a one-block long main street with a laundromat, post office, cleaner’s, two clothing stores and Pat’s Sundries, where you can also buy paper backed books. The residential areas, some of them extremely handsome and all very Westchestery indeed, seem extensive, but just the same there is a severe housing crisis in this rapidly expanding community. I am living in a teacher’s dormitory, and considering moving into a neat trailer, set in a pecan grove.

Janie instantly made friends upon our arrival. The Coree family took her and then me under their wings, and have taken good care of us. They are charming. The husband is a conservation officer for the (large) area in this part of the state. The wife, from Cajun Louisiana, is a councilor at the college. There are five children, four boys and a girl, the eldest two of which are students here.

It would be hard to imagine a more closely knit, warm family than this one. Their house is a center for half the teenagers in the town, who consume incredible amounts of ice cream and soda, while one or the other or both parents quietly keep an eye on things from a short distance away, in a charming, roomy house.

I have never come into a group of more gracefully welcoming people. The welcome is never too much, or grudging, and I have appreciated it deeply. So far we — or after Janie’s departure Friday, I — have been invited to dinner or an evening party every night but one since we got here. Colleagues in the English department, the head of the music department, the chief librarian, and the Corees have been our hosts. Conversation varies from the trivial to the intellectual. But I have noticed that in general people here tend to talk more about things than about ideas. In general, this is true, come to think of it, of people everywhere. I have spotted enough “ideas” people here already to reassure me that I will have plenty of conversation in the months to come.

The only awkward thing for me so far has been that I am constantly conspicuous, as conspicuous as a bright Kelly green person would be on the Columbia campus. This leads me to keep my hair combed and my lipstick on straight, and try to walk with dignity. There are some other “Kelly green” new teachers here. Two young men with fresh Hester’s degrees, a couple from Oregon. The young men are nice; I think the couple are nuts. We tend to rather avoid each other, a healthy thing, probably. One of the young men rented an apartment in Ruston when he couldn’t find one here. After his check had been taken, the owner found out he was teaching at Grambling, and refused to let him have the apartment. He was in a state of shock for awhile, they tell me. He is from Iowa; I would have known better than to try to rent that apartment. My new friends have made sure I know that the race relations in the immediate area are “extremely good,” whatever that means. But, one added, that is for the immediate area, where the college payroll is an economic factor. “I may be Dr. X in Huston,” he said, with a succinct lack of overt emotion, “but in Monroe (30 miles away) I am ‘boy’.” These “good” race relations right around here are curious. “I can try on anything I want to in the shops,” Martha Coree assured me. (Martha is a true beauty who might be a Sicilian or a Spaniard.) “But some people here tell me they can’t.”

I have met a great many students, here early for one reason or another, in the dining hall. They have grace and charm, and I am amused to watch them casing me carefully to see if they want me for a teacher. My only experience with what at the time seemed hostility was with a group of students. Last Sunday after church at 7 a.m. (you will all be happy to know there is a small Episcopal chapel, newly established, on the campus) I went to breakfast at 8. (Weekday breakfasts are at 6; I don’t get there.) I walked in a little early, and there were — obviously — about 50 of the football team, which seems to work all year around here. There were no other females in the huge room. I smiled and spoke to those near me. But no one would even look at me, or change expression in any way. They sort of stared right past me. It was a strange feeling for me; I thought maybe the football team was above speaking to teachers, or perhaps that in some way I had come at the wrong time or done something wrong. After the line formed I tried again with the young man next to me and finally he began to talk to me. Then another, and then another, and finally we have a great table for breakfast, with spirited conversation. I reported the experience to friends that night, lightly, as a little anecdote. There was a thoughtful deep silence for a moment. Then Mrs. Robinson, the coach’s wife, said “Jane, those boys were doing what their mothers taught them. ‘Never even look at a white woman. Don’t look at her.’ I have taught my boy that since he was six years old. A boy can’t get over that in a minute. I am surprised you were able to get them to talk to you at all, with no teacher or anyone to lead the way.” I appreciated her clear explanation, but I couldn’t answer her at all. Somehow, I was overwhelmed by a shame so deep that it seems to me I may never be able to wash it away. It does no good to say to myself, “Well, it isn’t my fault.” Whose fault is it?

The liquor law here says that liquor may not be sold in this county. There is no law as far as I can find out about possessing or drinking liquor. Everywhere I have been so far — in homes, that is — drinking habits are about what they are in Middletown, New Jersey, except that nobody seems to drink too much, however much he drinks. I keep a two-drink-per-evening rule, because I am a member of a minority group, and I am new, so I want to make a good impression at all times.

There is a young man here who is a premedical student at Johns Hopkins, after graduating from Don Bosco School in New Jersey. He is the son of the college auditor, Mrs. Carlton. We had a talk the first or second day I was here. Yesterday I found he has been helping me a little, for he has been questioned about what it would be like to be my student. He uses the soft sell, “Some of the best teachers I have had,” he has told inquirers, “have been white people.”

I think I may not have much opportunity to write after school starts next week. I will have five large classes, and thousands of compositions to correct after I have prepared my lectures. But I would appreciate hearing from you all, if you can write to me sometimes, because I am far from home.

Take note of my address. I will get mail much more surely and quickly if you use the simple box number, and do not put “Grambling College” in the address.

Best regards from, Jane Morrow