“Never Been Afraid”: An Interview with Raylawni Branch


Austin Lindsey

Raylawni Branch, one of USM’s first African American students in 1965 talks to SMTV recently about her experiences.

Raylawni Branch, born in 1941, is one of the first Black students to enroll at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Branch is a professional nursing educator as well as a US Air Force Reserve officer.

Out of all schools and public universities in the state of Mississippi, Branch was led to Southern Miss by the persuasion and influence of one of her high school peers.

“Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong, who was a high school student who applied here, was afraid to come alone,” said Branch

By Armstrong being Black as well, it gave her comfort knowing that someone who looked just like her would enroll at the same institution with the help of the NAACP.

“So in 1965, the NAACP, Forrest County NAACP, asked me if I would enroll and come out here. And believe it or not, Elaine and I didn’t have one single class together,” Branch said.

Although Armstrong and Branch did not have any classes together, there was still peace knowing that each other was on the same campus at the same time.

During her time of enrollment at Southern Miss, Branch already had a sick husband as well as three children.

The NAACP paid Branch’s tuition for school; but even with this academic help, she still struggled to keep money for her personal expenses.

“I worked on campus; we were paid work study for a dollar and five cents an hour,” Branch said. “We worked for 20 hours. So, we would take home approximately seventeen dollars and some change.”

Branch and her friend Armstrong would eat at a hamburger place on campus called Wimpy’s every day. However, one of the FBI’s asked her to never go and eat at Wimpy’s. Why?

One day, at Branch’s grandmother’s house, a Hattiesburg police officer attempted to dangerously harm her, but he ended up physically abusing her.

“I would say he tried to kill me one time. He hit me in my head with a leg of a chair. I’ve never stood down, and I’ve never been afraid,” Branch said.

On the day that Branch and Armstrong went into Wimpy’s, after being warned not to go, she saw six bodyguards in the restaurant.

Branch identified one of the six bodyguards inside of Wimpy’s as the police officer that hit her in the head with a chair.

“When I realized that he was one of the bodyguards, I told Elaine, ‘Guess where we are?’ And she said, ‘Where?’ I said, ‘We are in WIMPY’S. And she just turned red and said, ‘We are not supposed to be here,’” Branch said.

Not only did Branch face triggering encounters such as this one, but she also experienced what could have been a tragedy on USM’s Hattiesburg campus.

Branch gives credit to Dr. William D. McCain, who was the president at the time of her enrollment at Southern Miss, for stopping this dangerous act.

“The Klan wanted to come on campus and burn a cross,” Branch said. “Dr. McCain told them that they would not burn a cross on our campus.”

After dismissing the Klan’s proposal to come to campus, McCain stated in a meeting, “School and classes will go on as usual.” McCain took care of it all, and Branch is truly grateful for that to this very day.

There are many more stories, incidents, victories and triumphs that Branch has experienced in her life, even outside of attending USM.

At 82 years old now, Branch is assisting the student-doctors of osteopathy at William Carey University.

Branch’s name will forever be known, valued and respected at The University of Southern Mississippi.