Trail-blazers: The First Women and African-American Students at Delgado

By: Dee Shedrick
Historians provide dates and facts through research that have been documented about the past. However, events of yesterday are not always written on paper, stored in a box in the attic or caught on film. Sometimes, even if history has been saved, it may have been misplaced or destroyed. Also, because we were not actually there, and the possibility that it was a long time ago, every detail may not be precisely accurate. For instance, during our attempts to find the first woman and African-American male who attended Delgado, we discovered news articles, one in 1963 and the other in 1964, stating that two different women were the first to graduate from the College. So how do we uncover the truth and re-create our history for Delgado's 90th anniversary? We depend on the people who lived those experiences to recall what happened and share their experience with us. Then, we can relive those moments and take a walk down memory lane through their eyes.

Delgado Community College does not have on record who was the first woman or the first African-American to integrate and graduate from the school. The stories that follow are from three individuals who attended Delgado and claim to be the first or one of the first to receive diplomas or degrees from the College, in their own words.

Norma Jean Tonglet Brown, the first woman to enroll at Delgado.
Norma Jean Brown graduated from Delgado with a diploma from the Commercial Education Department in 1963. Brown says she was the first female to be enrolled at the school because there was a campaign for women to attend. Her brother, Tom Tonglet Jr. also attended, taking printing and/or art courses. Brown remembers, "It was scary being at the school with so many boys." Delgado was in the process of integrating to a co-ed institution, after being a trade school for boys since 1921. Ronald Brown, who later became her husband, was one of those boys enrolled in classes learning radio, cash register and copy machine repair, while Brown took courses like shorthand, typing, accounting, business law, English and math.

Brown was the secretary of the student council and immediately went to work after graduation as a secretary. "High school did not prepare me with the skills I needed to go on with my life. I had a great career for myself and raised my kids on my own because of the training Delgado provided," she said. Brown worked for some of New Orleans' top law firms like Sessions, Fishman, Nathan & Israel. At one point, she worked for the only patent attorney in the city (patent law facilitates patent applications, trademarks and copyrights).  Patents became her specialty and she did everything from accounting to management. Brown recently retired after 45 years of working in the field.

"In the 60's, integration was a hot topic," said Brown, and no one knows that better than Sterling Doucette. Doucette attended Delgado in 1964 after the federal government merged the white and the black Carpenters Local Union 2039 and 1846. Unions typically fight for the rights of its members and offer professional training and job placement. Because Delgado had recently segregated, Carpenters Local 1846 sent Doucette, two of his cousins and several other African-American union members for schooling and picked up the tab. "I don't know if I am the first black, but I know that I was among the first blacks to go there," said Doucette. While at Delgado, Doucette became a substitute teacher and successfully completed his studies in construction management and blueprint reading and even returned a second time to get an engineering license.

After graduation Doucette worked in the booming construction industry in New Orleans. He helped build the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the Rivergate, currently the site of Harrah's casino. Doucette says because of Delgado he is self-employed and has owned Doucette & Associated Contractors, Inc., since 1967. "Delgado offers opportunities to the young and disadvantaged in the white and the black communities … everyone is not going to be a lawyer, but if they are skilled with their hands, they can learn at Delgado."

Sterling Doucette, one of the first African-American men to attend Delgado.
Norma Jean Brown may have been the first Caucasian female, and Sterling Doucette one of the first African-American males to enroll at Delgado, but in 1973, Carmen Bazile says she was the first African-American woman to graduate with a Culinary Arts Degree. "I was a fly in buttermilk," recalls Bazile. "It was a major challenge being a female and trying to break through the glass ceiling that was a man's world in culinary arts."

Delgado was chosen for Bazile after she cooked home-made hamburgers for a family that she worked for as a maid. Unaware of the meaning of culinary, she began the program, all expenses paid by her employer.  At Delgado, Bazile learned cake decorating and international, bulk and industrial cooking. She became the president of the Culinary Club and managed to get a job as a head chef after graduation at a local restaurant, called CafĂ© Brulot. Later, she worked at Nunez Community College for 24 years as an instructor and won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2002. Bazile also created a line of seasoning called "Miss Ruth's All-Natural Seasonings" that have been sold all-over the world.

Carmen Bazile, the first African-American to receive a culinary art degree at Delgado.
Bazile's years at Delgado and in the food industry were very challenging. Bazile had to overcome many prejudices. "Women didn't get the title of chefs -- we were prep cooks," Bazile said. "In spite of the challenges, my experience has made me a person to deal with any type of situation … and it made me have a deep appreciation for education. I thank God for Delgado and the woman who directed that path for me."

Much has changed since the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today, women and African-Americans take the lead in enrollment at Delgado and the numbers are still climbing. Figures show that women make up 65.9 percent of the student population compared to 34.1 percent of men. And African-American students college-wide saw a 14.3 percent increase from the Fall 2010 semester with 41.7 percent, followed by Caucasian students with 33.6 percent. The one thing that has remained consistent at Delgado is the role it plays in the community of providing a clear pathway from education to the workplace, something that Brown can attest to. "I am very proud of what Delgado has become and it's good to see how much the school has grown since I attended," Brown said.

Sources Consulted

Personal Interviews: Carmen Bazile, Norma Jean Brown and Sterling Doucette.

Fall 2011 enrollment report, provided by Delgado Office of Institutional Research.

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