Years of Tension and Change:



There were other pressures on Covington High School besides the influx of "Yankees." There was the pressure stemming from the Supreme Court decision ordering that the schools be integrated. In fourteen years Louisiana had only achieved 11 percent integration, and recent court decisions made it clear that this pace would have to be stepped up considerably. In 1968 United States District Court Judge Frederick Heebe and the U.S. Justice Department exhibited "total dismay" at the few Blacks integrated in the freedom of choice law which allowed both Blacks and Whites to select the schools they wanted to attend.1

On March 7, 1968, the St. Tammany Farmer reported: "A brush fire war being waged against the St. Tammany Parish School Board for most of the past year broke into a full scale attack when two civil rights groups aided by an assorted delegation of Blacks and the Citizens for St. Tammany Parish Schools took 90 minutes to air their grievances. The School Board was called on to face the issue of total integration and not leave it up to federal judges." From then on, School Board meetings became more exciting than football games.2

In June, 1968 the Federal Court ordered the freedom of choice plan scrapped and total integration. At the July meeting 250 angry parents and citizens turned out to protest the federal courts latest desegregation order. The meeting was moved into the Covington High gym and police stood by in case of need. A score of citizens carried signs such as "Don't Destroy Our Public Schools;" "Carpetbaggers Go Home;" "Give Us Freedom of Choice." A referendum on freedom of choice was proposed, but later the attorney general said it would be illegal. Some related the plan to communism, others said we "should have the courage of our forefathers and resolve not to go along with it." Tremendous applause greeted District Attorney Erwin's statement that he would not prosecute any parents for keeping their children home from an integrated school. The fact was, the School Board had no choice, all appeals had been turned down. If the Board did not comply with the federal order it would be held in contempt of court and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare would take over the school system.3

Some wanted the schools closed, but the majority didn't. The fully integrated schools opened quietly with no major incidents on August 29, 1970. Under the new plan Covington High dropped the ninth grade and took the Black students from Pine View High's tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades with a crossover of teachers as well. Covington High now had 933 students. Enrollment was down for awhile, but by the fifth week School Board members for Ward 3 reported that 91.1 percent of the children were now present in school.4


All was not well, however. The School board passed a resolution to safeguard schools against criminal violence and guidelines for discipline were set up. An appeal was made to parents "to cooperate with us in obeying the law and endeavoring in the spirit of goodwill to work for the best schools possible in these trying circumstances."5

The "trying circumstances" were mainly in the high school and junior highs as volatile teenagers who had never sat in a classroom together sent off electric sparks. At Covington High fights broke out in the halls as several students would get into an argument and others joined in taking sides. Sometimes, as many as one hundred students were embroiled in a free-for-all. The male teachers pitched in, sometimes back-to-back as they grabbed students to separate them and push them against the wall. Fortunately, no one was really hurt, but the teachers had some nasty words spat at them. However, in general the youngsters did listen to reason and stayed separated.6

The School Board said either to close the school or fight it through, and that's what they did. The police came in and for almost two weeks deputies were stationed every 40 to 50 feet down the hall. The troublemakers, white and black, were arrested. The school's location in town made it easy for outsiders to come in or drive around harassing the students and they were arrested. By the end of the month the main agitators were eliminated and the last deputy on duty at the school had left, remaining on call. A small minority, perhaps eighty or ninety, had caused the trouble.7

There were, of course, more incidents. In February a bomb exploded in the male lavatory causing some damage. More serious was the demonstration in April by 150 black students. Sixty-seven students, many not from Covington High, were arrested and held in a wire enclosure at the Community Center Fair grounds. Most were released to the custody of their parents. One of their complaints was that Principal Wagner had a confederate flag (along with the United States flag and State flag) in his office and they wanted it removed. When Mr. Wagner refused with the School Board backing him, a suit was filed and the judge ordered it removed.8

The second year of integration was easier than the first. By 1973 when all incoming classes had been integrated in the earlier grades, most of the difficulty was over. There hadn't been the exodus to private schools that had been expected, and the students were learning to work together.9

The coaches had told their athletes, "There are only two colors here, blue and gold, we don't have any black and white." They were a tight knit group and they worked well together. Most of the coaches were former Covington High graduates, although Coach Connerly had been head coach at Pine View High. The athletic director taking over from Hubie Gallagher in 1968, was Jack Salter, "the silver fox." The coaches were proud of their students, not just for their athletic prowess, but because they were learning to make something of themselves and work as a team.10


After 1971, when junior high football started, there was the biggest growth in that sport at Covington High. Since 1973 Covington High has had one of the better teams in the state, winning eight district championsips, going to the state championship three times and winning it in 1976.11


Football has changed through the years. The early teams of 35 players have grown to 125, the three coaches to seven, plus a trainer. Students that were big at 170-180 pounds in the 1960's now go up to 200-240 pounds. Better nutrition and inheritance; earlier training and individual attention from the increased number of coaches; and the introduction of weight lifting has made today's athletes stronger, bigger, and faster. Equipment has been improved. The old leather helmets were changed to Ryder helmets with twelve suspension points which were used until 1976; the size of cleats were diminished to help prevent injuries.12

The first mention of a state track meet in the Blue Book was in 1951, although it was started earlier. At first only about fifteen students turned out for track and field, but when Allie Smith returned to coach track and football, he promised himself he would do a selling job and get more students out. Success breeds success and today an average turnout for track and field is about sixty. The teams have won about eight or nine District Track Championships.13

Girls sports have also expanded. Now they not only have basketball teams, but volleyball and track and field as well.14


Integration had been a trial by fire for principal Louis H. Wagner. When he applied for the position in 1963, Mr. Plummer said, "This is a helluva job, I don't know why you want it!" Later during his first year, Mr. Wagner asked Mr. Plummer if the job got easier in time. Mr. Plummer's answer was that actually they were being easier on him since he was new, it would be worse in four or five years. Unfortunately, the joke became reality, and there was still another hard year to come.15


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