DENHAM SPRINGS -- Each day at West Livingston High started the same way — with a prayer.
And if you didn’t know your prayers, someone immediately taught you, Patricia Muse recalls.
“You learned quickly,” she said with a laugh.
Those morning prayers, held in the first class before a single lesson was taught, grew in importance over the years for Muse, who became one of the first Black graduates from Denham Springs High after integration slowly took hold in Livingston Parish in the 1960s.
Prayer is what taught Muse compassion for others, forgiveness for those who wronged her, and understanding of other people’s beliefs. It also instilled in her another trait she’d need time and time again — perseverance.
“The thing that helped me through was prayer,” she said. “To this very day, through everything in life, it was that prayer and belief in God.”
Prayer is what Muse said got her through some of the darkest moments in life, including many that occurred after she left West Livingston High, an all-Black school she grew up in, for Denham Springs High, an all-white school that didn’t seem to want her.
Muse can still remember sitting down at a table for lunch, only for the white students to scurry away as soon as she took a seat. She remembers food being thrown at her inside the cafeteria, though she’d rarely see the culprit as other students erupted in laughter. She remembers the fights that constantly broke out.
She recalls one situation in the hallway when someone knocked her down, “with my books and everything.” When Muse told the principal, who stood nearby during the incident, she was asked to identify who did it.
Muse said she didn’t know the person’s name. The principal said he couldn’t help.
After each instance, Muse said she turned to prayer.
“That basic prayer carried me through many, many days at Denham Springs High School,” she said.
More than 50 years after integration closed its doors for good, the lessons that were taught inside the walls of West Livingston High still resonate with those that went to school and taught there in the 1950s and 60s.
The all-Black school wasn’t open long — not even 20 years — but its former students and teachers speak glowingly of the life lessons they learned at the school that became the local hub. They also raved about the “excellent education” that was offered at a school many didn’t want closed.
The News recently spoke with multiple former students and teachers of the school that shut down for good in the spring of 1970. In each interview, the same word popped up.
“This was a community school,” said Daniel Landry, Sr., one of 23 graduates from the Class of 1965. “It was the center of the community.”
West Livingston High signaled a new chapter for education among Livingston Parish’s Black residents, who had few local options for schooling prior to its formation. For much of the first half of the 20th century, students had to travel outside of Livingston Parish to get a high school diploma, mostly to Capitol High or McKinley High in neighboring Baton Rouge.
Inside Livingston Parish, educational choices were limited to church schools or homeschools, which usually taught up to seventh or eighth grade.
“That was about as far as many people went back then,” Landry said.
Education started to improve for Black students in the 1920s when the Rosenwald School was built, West Livingston High graduate and former principal Arthur Perkins, Sr., wrote in “The Free State - A History and Place-Names Study of Livingston Parish.”
The Rosenwald School grew in size and was eventually relocated to Rodeo Drive, near the corner of present-day Range Avenue and U.S. Highway 190, in the 1940s.
Soon after, as the school’s student body and faculty continued to grow, it was changed to West Livingston High and became the first Black school to be built solely with School Board funds.
Eventually, it became the most influential spot in the community.
Sarah Scott, a West Livingston High graduate who later went on to teach in Livingston Parish for more than 50 years, said she “loved” her time at the school, where many students spent their entire academic lives.
At the school, she said she learned “how to be a friend, how to take turns, how to respect each other, and how to be fair and honest.”
“It seemed like everyone was family,” Scott said.
More importantly, West Livingston High gave Scott and others like herself a top-notch education at a time when many of those doors remained closed to people of color.
One of a few all-Black schools in the parish at the time, West Livingston High was a consolidated school that served children in grades 1-12. It drew students from the west side of the parish, mostly from the Denham Springs, Watson, Port Vincent, and Walker areas.
Scott said her teachers were “very strict” but “always got the best out of you.” They looked over their students’ homework everyday, even checking the handwriting “to make sure you were the one who did it.”
When it was time for report cards, teachers would bring students to the front of the class and call out their grades, something Scott jokingly said wouldn’t happen today.
“They would call your name and every one of your grades out with everyone watching,” recalled Scott, who later taught at the school until its closing. “This would be against the law now, but it held everyone accountable.”
And if you misbehaved outside of school, you could almost expect to be called into the principal’s office the next day.
“It wasn’t that you just did something that affected you, it affected how you were seen in the community,” Landry said. “That’s what we grew up with.”
The teachers at West Livingston High made due with what they had, which wasn’t much.
The school was given used books, and even the “so-called new ones” still had other people’s names inside. Whenever she received a book, Muse said she would erase the names of its previous owners.
Classes with as many as 30 students had less than a handful of dictionaries to work with, and teachers routinely had to share equipment.
It was much different from the all-white schools, which seemed to have “so much equipment and everything they needed,” Muse said.
“Anything we got at West Livingston, we had to come up with ways of raising money for it,” Muse said. “Now and then the School Board would send things our way, but they were very meager.”
“Many of our teachers had to share equipment,” she continued. “If one wanted to use the overhead projector to show a film… you had to see if someone else was using it to make sure you could use it. Just an everyday teaching episode.”
Still, the teachers never let the obstacles keep them from their primary objective — educating their students. Scott said her education at West Livingston High helped her outperform students from “the big-name schools” in Baton Rouge and New Orleans during her time at Southern University.
“I thought I should not have made better grades than them, but I did,” Scott recalled.
Added Landry: “We grew up with very capable teachers who pushed us to excel.”
West Livingston became a four-year high school during the 1952-53 school year and housed multiple buildings on its campus. Landry said the school had a gym, an industrial arts building, a cafeteria, and a line of buildings known as A and B buildings, with each containing about 12 or so classes.
Inside those walls, West Livingston High offered a “varied” experience to its students, who excelled in athletics, academics, and arts. Landry said West Livingston students attended literary rallies and performing arts competitions, where they stood toe-to-toe with students from other schools.
But some of his most fond memories came in the gym, where the West Livingston High Trojans — who won the 1964 state championship — often dominated the competition, routinely putting up 100 points against opponents.
“And that was before the 3-point line,” Landry said, flashing a grin.
The students weren’t the only ones who benefitted from West Livingston High — the teachers did, too.
Fred Banks, another West Livingston graduate who later became a math teacher at the school, said he had multiple “extra duties” on top of his course load. Those included loading the vending machines, running the sporting events, and serving as school treasurer.
“All that helped my experience to be very diverse,” said Banks, who has served as executive director of the Denham Springs Housing Authority for more than 30 years.
Religion was also a major influence in the school, Perkins told The News in 2009 during the Class of 1969’s 40-year reunion.
On Monday mornings, students were asked if they went to church on Sunday. They weren’t punished if they didn’t go, but they were if they lied about it. And if they misbehaved in church, they were sent to the office.
Along with the morning prayers, Bible verses were also read aloud on Fridays.
“Parents respected the teachers,” Perkins said in 2009, “and teachers really cared about the students. That was part of the recruiting.”
Things started to change in the 1960s when Cornelius Dunn and his sister-in-law Ethel Dunn filed a lawsuit on behalf of their children seeking to end Livingston Parish’s separate schooling for white and Black students.
Eventually, Livingston Parish schools were court-ordered to open their doors to Black students, with Muse being among the first to integrate the all-white Denham Springs High.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience: Black students were constantly harassed and spit on by white students, and they got hardly any help from their teachers, who looked on indifferently. Muse, who attended Denham Springs High her last two years of high school, still remembers being in class the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated — April 4, 1968 — and some of her white classmates rejoicing at the news.
Integration also cost Muse’s father his job working for the city, she said.
“I knew it was gonna be tough,” Muse recalled. “But there’s a part of me that also felt like the things I had been taught in life — how to treat another human being — I felt like there were some people there who felt the way I did and that I would meet some friends and new people.
“Maybe it was naivety or hopefulness. I don’t know. You want to meet someone who will treat you the way you want to be treated and the way you would treat them if they came to your school.”
Muse and two other Black students graduated from Denham Springs High in 1968, becoming the first to do so. By then, other West Livingston students had been slowly making their way to the all-white schools as integration gained a stronger foothold in the parish.
However, integration came at a steep cost — it resulted in the eventual closure of West Livingston High, a gut-wrenching blow to the community. To integrate the school system, the School Board decided to shut down all the Black schools, most notably West Livingston High and East Livingston High, which served students in the Albany/Springfield area.
Landry, 19 at the time, said he and others appeared with Cornelius Dunn in front of the School Board to make a case to keep West Livingston High open, calling it a “fully-viable facility” that was more than capable of housing both white and Black students. The school had just undergone nearly $1 million in renovations, which included adding new buildings and a new cafeteria.
“Even if they decided to keep this as an elementary school, it would’ve been far superior to many of the schools that they were transferring students to,” Landry said. “Of course that was not met with any favor.
“Their argument was, ‘You asked for integration, and now you shouldn’t quibble as to how we decide to do it.’ Basically, ‘You’ve asked for this, now live with it.’”
West Livingston served mostly younger students during its last few years before closing for good following the 1969-70 school year. After that, the campus no longer bustled with the activity of a functioning school, save for the recreational activities that Landry, Perkins, and others organized to keep the community engaged.
Over time, the buildings became more dilapidated, which Landry said prompted him to request permission from the City of Denham Springs to have them torn down and removed. After getting approval, he said he devised a plan that offered people materials for helping in the demolition.
“They would come in and sign a waiver against any liability for taking down the buildings and things of that sort, and they could have the lumber and whatever from it,” he said.
The gym, however, remained and in 1998, at the request of community leader Lawrence Jordan and others, PARDS evaluated the building and decided to restore it.
The district then embarked on a five-year plan — which was completed six months ahead of schedule — to refurbish the old gym through a combination of appropriations, grants, donations, “and a lot of volunteer labor.”
Former DSHS basketball star Tasmin Mitchell christened the restored purple and white building with a ceremonial first dunk in 2003.
The entire project cost $248,500 and involved PARDS, the City of Denham Springs, the Parish Council and the state Rural Development grant program, The News reported at the time. Before the renovations, the gym had chains on the doors, broken windows, and pigeons living inside, then-PARDS Director Dale Sisemore said.
But an engineer had determined the building was still structurally sound, and park officials noted that the West Livingston Park had fewer problems with vandalism than PARDS’ biggest, most-used facility, North Park.
“That’s one of the best-kept secrets in Livingston Parish,” said Jordan, an alumnus of West Livingston High, at the time.
The site of the former West Livingston High was eventually renamed the L.M. Lockhart Community Center, named in honor of the school’s former principal. The park includes an air-conditioned activities building, playground equipment, outdoor basketball courts, a walking track, and the gymnasium.
In recent years, the facility has been used for a variety of community activities, though many have been put on hold over the last 12 months amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Scott started Camp Empowerment, a two-week youth summer camp, in 2009 to “keep kids active and learning during the summer.” Camp Empowerment is sponsored by the West Livingston Advisory Committee (WLAC), which has helped pay for the camp every year it’s been held. Scott said she’s hoping to bring the camp back this summer, though she added “only if it’s safe.”
Before his passing last summer from COVID-19, Perkins also ran a summer program from the L.M. Lockhart Center.
An annual Black History Month program also takes place inside the center, which is where an MLK Day march begins every January.
Though the doors of West Livingston High closed more than a half-century ago, those who grew up and learned inside those walls still speak fondly of the school that helped shape their lives.
“At West Livingston, we were encouraged in so many ways to excel, to be the very best that we could be,” Muse said. “Many of the people from West Livingston are all over the U.S. doing different things. Many times, even to this very day, there are people who will ask us where we went to school, because what we learned was well-learned and implemented.
“Everything from courtesy to book knowledge, so many different things that we learned about treating one human being the way you want to be treated, because you never know where you’re gonna find yourself in life.”