Dr. Bennett's Speeches: Armstrong-Branch Plaza Dedication

Sept. 6, 2013

It is always wonderful to celebrate the completion of a project – but we are also here today to dedicate this plaza in commemoration of a significant milestone in the history of our university.  Forty-eight years ago today, two African-American women ended segregation here at The University of Southern Mississippi.  What they did was in one sense quite ordinary:  they went to college; but where – an all-white institution – and when – 1965 – was for them anything but ordinary. 

All that is good about America, about Mississippi, and about The University of Southern Mississippi long coexisted among racial discrimination.  The 1960s marked a significant phase in the long struggle to end segregation.  In 1965, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong was eighteen years old.  Bright, ambitious, and musically gifted, she had just graduated from Rowan High School in Hattiesburg.  Despite scholarship offers from colleges elsewhere, she preferred to continue her education at her hometown university to be near her mother.  To do so, however, she would have to challenge a color barrier that had stood for more than half a century since the school first opened its doors in 1912.  Others had tried before but were not successful; however, she was determined. 

Raylawni Branch had, several years earlier, also graduated from Rowan High School but had not yet attended college.  By 1965, she was a married working mother and a proud veteran of civil rights activism in Hattiesburg.  The local NAACP chapter offered to pay her tuition if she would also enroll at USM and provide companionship and moral support for young Armstrong.  “It was,” Branch later recalled, “the answer to a dream,” a chance not so much to make history but “to get an education.” 

On September 6, 1965, these two brave women, quietly and without incident, ended segregation at the University of Southern Mississippi.  The administration was determined to avoid the kind of notoriety that had accompanied earlier attempts at USM and especially the violence that had marked integration elsewhere in the state, and they took great pains to make what was in reality a momentous event seem largely uneventful.  Despite the absence of overt hostility, Armstrong and Branch endured the loneliness and anxiety that confront all pioneers.  In Branch’s words, “Somebody had to go first.  Somebody had to go through whatever might happen . . . so . . . others could come along and wouldn’t have to give it a thought.” 

Armstrong, who lived on campus, participated in the full range of student activities, including the University Choir, to whose success she was a major contributor.  After leaving Southern Miss, she married and eventually moved to Maryland, where she worked, raised a family, and currently serves as an investor consultant and agent for a prominent real estate firm.  Branch’s family responsibilities restricted her experience to the classroom.  As a commuting student, she often made the lengthy trek from her home to campus and back on foot.  Forced by family responsibilities to withdraw after a year, she went on to a successful military career, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force reserve.  She later returned to Southern Miss, earned a master’s degree, and taught nursing at Pearl River Community College and USM until her retirement in 2004. 

The history of our institution is characterized by ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things.  In 1965, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch forever changed the Southern Miss story.  With courage and dignity, they turned the ordinary act of attending The University of Southern Mississippi into something splendidly extraordinary.  For almost half a century, countless others have reaped the benefits of their quiet but unwavering determination, which we honor today by naming this beautiful space Armstrong-Branch Plaza. 

Today, we welcome Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong Chamberlain and Raylawni Branch back to campus as we pay homage to their impact here.  Ms. Chamberlain, Ms. Branch – I want to say thank you for your courage, for your spirit, and for changing our institution’s history.  Your role here will never be forgotten.  From this day forward, this beautiful pedestrian plaza will mark your time here at Southern Miss. 

And so, today, we dedicate this plaza as a place –

  • Where students, faculty, alumni, staff, and friends of the university will enjoy the beauty of freedom;
  • Where persistence and strength will serve future generations of students with as much permanence as the human hand can fabricate;
  • Where its solidarity and dignity embody the spirit of our campus’ pioneers;
  • Where we dedicate ourselves to the greatness of spirit that made it a reality and to the ideals it represents;
  • Where all who enter will be reminded and inspired by the actions of Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch, whose impact on this university and their communities make us proud to call them Golden Eagles;
  • We now dedicate the Armstrong-Branch Plaza toward these ends and for the betterment of this university and all who work and study here. 

I will now ask Ms. Chamberlain and Ms. Branch to join Dr. Lucas and other platform participants in unveiling the dedication plaque and the cutting of the ribbon.  Following the ribbon cutting, we will return to the stage for Ms. Chamberlain and Ms. Branch to share a few words.