Pain, lessons remain decades after Southern University shooting
Shunda Wallace was 3 months old when her father, Leonard Brown, and another student, Denver Smith, were shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy on Southern University’s campus in November 1972.
Fifty years later, Wallace still does not know who killed her father. The anger and the grief for a dad she never got to know burn in her, especially when her 18-year-old daughter, Raven, asks questions she cannot answer.
“I tell people, don't ever say you don't miss something that you didn't have,” she said. “And I tell people all the time, something was taken from me at a very early age that was senseless.”
In the aftermath of the shooting lay a future marked with grief for family members of the victims and a period of uncertainty for protest leaders, who were expelled from Southern. But the protests also helped produce some of the changes that the students wanted to see. And the shooting brought to the fore questions about excessive police force that still haunt Baton Rouge and the nation today.
The shooting came after several weeks of protests and class boycotts over what the students saw as poor funding, dilapidated buildings and little response to their concerns.
The deputies were there that day to disperse at least 200 students who had gathered after the arrests of campus protest leaders. Amid a haze of tear gas, one deputy fired a single buckshot blast that killed Brown and Smith, 20-year-old juniors who had been more interested in their studies than the protests. Nearly 2,700 pages of FBI documents reveal how agents narrowed their search to a handful of deputies but could not prove who fired the fatal shot.
Family members and former protest leaders will gather to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the shooting at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. The event is open to the public.
"We can seize the opportunity to learn the lessons that this tragedy holds,” said Angela Allen-Bell, a professor at the Southern University Law Center who organized the event. “All of this work awaits us.”
‘I couldn’t speak’
Josephine Smith Jones does not go into crowds — not since her brother, Denver, was shot fleeing at the back of one.
“You might think it's safe, but anything could happen at any time,” she said.
The Smith family spent decades hardly speaking of the shooting.
“When I came home, I couldn't speak, couldn’t talk,” said Josephine. “I'm not talking about one day. I’m talking about for years.”
Josephine returned to Southern to finish her degree only because her mother made her. Her roommate, Brenda Glover, never returned after the shooting. She and Josephine were 19 when Smith was killed.
“Maybe a couple of years ago, we sat and we cried about it, because we hadn't talked about it at all,” said Glover, sitting in a New Roads church pew beside Josephine recently. “We tried to even dismiss that it happened because it was so awful. We were so young, and it messed us up.”
Brown’s mother, Elizabeth Fay Brown, did not like to speak of her son’s death. She “went to her grave still suffering about that,” Wallace said. She died in 2013.
Mrs. Brown grew grim each year around the date of her son’s death, according to Evelyn Turner, Brown’s younger sister. And on Aug. 16, she always said, “It’s my baby’s birthday,” Turner said.
His birthday was 14 days after Denver Smith’s.
Brown’s girlfriend, Rosie Taylor, ate breakfast with him the morning of the shooting—before Brown wandered to the Southern administration building to see why a crowd had gathered. He was killed minutes later near the front steps.
Three years later, she went to work at Southern inside that building.
“So I had to face driving through that every day, walking through there every day, walking through that path every day,” she said.
Both families were angry at Southern after the shooting. Josephine said no Southern official came to her brother’s funeral—or even sent a card or a flower.
Wallace, Brown’s daughter, said her own daughter, Raven, graduated from high school last May and now goes to a community college. “She was thinking about going to Southern, and I said, ‘Nope, don’t even say it,’” Wallace said. “Why should I give to a university that didn’t care about me or my family? Why should I put my money into them?”
Reliving it every year
Nine of the protest leaders were expelled from Southern and banned from campus in the weeks following the shooting, leaving them to decide if they would fight to return or go elsewhere.
Fred Prejean, one of the leaders, wanted to stay. He made regular phone calls to Southern’s president, George Leon Netterville Jr. And in a March 1974 letter, he asked the president to allow him to graduate, saying “those who desired to ‘teach me a lesson’ have had their hour of rejoicing.”
In the meantime, Prejean took classes at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Two other protest leaders, Sukari Hardnett and Herget Harris, transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. Rickey Hill went to Fisk University in Nashville.
In August 1974, Prejean, married his girlfriend, Ola Sims, who had graduated from Southern the semester after the shooting. That December, a state judge lifted Prejean’s ban from campus, allowing him to finish his degree at Southern.
Prejean, who was a “very serious, intense” person by nature, according to his wife, had caught the ire of Gov. Edwin Edwards because of his leadership in the protests.
Still, Prejean was appointed in 1992 as undersecretary of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries by the governor who had once been his adversary, developing a relationship with Edwards that was “based on mutual respect,” his wife said.
Prejean, a Lafayette native, also led the charge that resulted in the 2021 removal of a Confederate general statue in downtown Lafayette. He died at 75 in January 2022.
Hardnett became a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area, and Herget Harris, who earned a master’s degree in computer engineering, was a technical manager in the communications industry. Hill earned a doctorate and went on to chair the political science department at Jackson State University.
Regardless of their paths, they all remain haunted by the shooting.
“I have re-lived this experience every year since 1972,” Hill said.
Gains from the protests
Some progress arose from the 1972 protests, including changes in governance and funding for Southern—two issues that had sparked student frustrations.
Southern got its own Board of Supervisors in 1975, granting it more self-governance than it had had under an all-white state Board of Education, which the protest leaders viewed as a racial relic even for its time and region.
Disparities in state funding, set by the Louisiana Legislature, remain, though the shortfall at Southern seems less than it once was. In 1972, Southern received only 57% of the direct per-student appropriations that LSU received. Now Southern receives 95% of LSU’s per-student total, though LSU also receives a substantial infusion of state money to cover the tuition of TOPS scholarship recipients.
Bringing the funding disparities to the forefront was “one of the greatest things we were able to accomplish,” Ola Prejean said.
Mrs. Prejean said her husband also came to realize that the protesters should have focused their efforts on the Legislature instead of pressuring Netterville, the Southern president, for change.
“Years removed from this, Fred came to recognize that maybe we were fighting the wrong person,” she said.
She said he “came to recognize that Netterville’s powers were also limited – that he did not have the powers to make changes that we thought that he did, that the fight should have been with the Legislature, and that’s where the fight eventually was taken to.”
Harris agreed that the protesters pushed Southern in the right direction.
“It’s always worth it to fight back, address wrongdoings and stand up for what is right,” he said.
Holding law-enforcement accountable
Mike Barnett, who was at Southern on the day of the shooting as a young sheriff’s deputy and is now a liaison to the Louisiana Sheriff's Association, said a lack of training was the biggest factor that led to the two men’s deaths.
“If you were teaching crowd control, it would be a good way to show how to not do it,” he said.
Another officer there that day, Paul Potts, who died in 2018, used Southern as an example of what not to do when training new recruits, according to his grandson, Robert Paul Potts III, also a law enforcement officer.
“That was the event that traumatized him and gave him the metal spike to be able to do the job right, to make it better,” Potts said.
A commission named by Gov. Edwards found in 1973 that there was “no justification” for the shooting and that the confrontation “should never have happened.” The FBI could not determine if the shooting was intentional or accidental, saying it remained possible that a deputy thought he was shooting tear gas and did not realize himself that he had fired a live round.
Barnett said training for these kinds of encounters has improved since then.
“If you move forward from that time until this time, in all probability this could not happen or would not happen,” Barnett said.
Still, shootings by law-enforcement officers during day-to-day patrols and traffic stops continue to trouble Baton Rouge and the nation, and Allen-Bell, the Southern law professor, said any community that “sees this violence will experience some level of trauma.”
In July 2016, a Baton Rouge police officer killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man who was selling compact discs outside a store. Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, was shot dead by police the next day in Minnesota, and the roll of well-known victims, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has continued to grow.
“When this happens to the Black community, there's an added layer of complexity to something like this, simply because, historically, Black victims of crime have to balance the sorrow that they experienced against the distressing cry for accountability,” Allen-Bell said.
Referring to the Southern shooting, she added: “We've traumatized a community that has been on the receiving end of a message that, in an instance like this, there is no value to your life. There is no need to hold someone accountable when they take the innocent lives of Black students. And this obviously creates a level of distrust between people in this community, and of course, officials, state actors, and that has yet to be addressed.”
Legacy at Southern today
Southern University’s student union bears the name Smith-Brown Memorial Union.
LSU Cold Case Project researchers recently surveyed Southern students at random in the building, right in front of a wall with portraits of Smith and Brown separated by large letters reading “LEST WE FORGET.”
Twenty-three out of 53 students did not know the men’s names or the story behind them. Fifteen knew the names but not the story.
“I know it’s about two guys,” one freshman political science major said. “I think they got shot up here?”
A sophomore criminal justice major looked behind her at the portraits after hearing the story. “Wow,” she said. “That’s interesting. I never knew that.”
Denver Terrance, Smith’s nephew, founded the Denver Smith Foundation in 2019, which awards scholarships to students with barriers to accessing college.
Through efforts led by Allen-Bell, Southern awarded Smith and Brown posthumous degrees in 2017. And Southern’s board voted last month to lift bans on the former protesters’ returning to campus.
Still, Ola Prejean worries that her grandsons will have to fight the same battles in 2025 that her husband waged in the ’70s.
“It's frustrating that one has to spend their entire lives fighting what seems to be the same fight,” she said. “You know, the faces change, but the issues don't change. And it's disheartening.”
Adrian Dubose, Drew Hawkins, Annalise Vidrine, Alex Tirado and Maria Pham contributed reporting. This series is supported by the Data-Driven Reporting Project. Nearly 2,700 pages of FBI documents and Department of Justice reports are available via these links and. more information on the series is on the LSU Cold Case Project website.