July 30, 2014  

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Southern Miss’ First African American Students Reflect on Experiences at Forum

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Austin Simmons, left, a Southern Miss Honors College student majoring in broadcast journalism, talks with Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong Chamberlain, center, and Raylawni Branch at last Thursday’s University Forum. In 1965, Chamberlain and Branch became the first African American students at the university. (University Communications photo by David Tisdale)

Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong Chamberlain and Raylawni Branch, the first African American students at The University of Southern Mississippi, reflected on their experiences and impact on the history of the university and civil rights movement last Thursday at University Forum.

The two integrated the university peacefully in the fall 1965 semester. More than 45 years later, they discussed their experience and answered questions from moderator Austin Simmons, an Honors College student majoring in broadcast journalism, and members of the University Forum audience.

“It’s awesome to think that I had a part in the history of the university,” Branch said, but added that although she made history, her purpose in coming to Southern Miss was “not to integrate the university, but to get an education.”

Chamberlain said she has long admired the words from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, when he said ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and believes personal sacrifice for the benefit of others is the true measure of a person.

“I came here to make a difference, not only for my children, but for mankind – not just blacks and not just whites, but for all mankind,” she said.