USM Dedicates Armstrong-Branch Plaza - WHLT 22 Connecting the Pine Belt

USM Dedicates Armstrong-Branch Plaza

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USM officials dedicated the Armstrong-Branch Plaza on the anniversary of a momentous occasion in the history of the university.

"God of love and God of mercy, we come to this historic moment with hearts that are both heavy and very happy," Former USM President Aubrey Lucas said during prayer. 

Southern Miss administrators, students, faculty, alumni and friends gathered between the Liberal Arts Building and Joseph Green Hall today to dedicate the newly-built plaza in honor of Gwendolyn Armstrong and Raylawni Branch.

"What they did in one sense was quite ordinary," USM President Rodney Bennet said.  "They went to college."

He said the thing that made this act extraordinary was that they were African Americans attending an all white college in 1965.

"September 6, 1965 these two brave women quietly and without incident ended segregation at USM," Bennett said.

Armstrong, a bright, talented recent graduate of Rowan High School in Hattiesburg, was determined to go to college in her hometown to be near her mother.  The NAACP offered to pay Branch's tuition if she would provide companionship to Armstrong.

The plaza was recently completed with help from a federal grant through the Mississippi Department of Transportation.  MDOT Commissioner Tom King said he enjoys helping the university since he, himself is a Golden Eagle.

President Bennett thanked the women for their bravery.

"From this day forward, this beautiful pedestrian plaza will mark your time here at Southern Miss," he said.  "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."

As the university was thanking them for their courage, they both expressed gratitude to the university.

"I am today and will be so eternally grateful for this honor," Armstrong said. 

Branch said she loved that they placed the plaza near the International Building because of the phrase etched on the front, "Above all nations is humanity."

"Everyone who knows me knows that I stand on - There's only one race of mankind, and that's the human race," Branch said.

She said she lives today with the same advice she's always lived by.

"I can never let fear paralyze me," Branch said. 

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