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Noella Lyons Black Family
Noella Lyons Black left school during WWII but will return for commencement.
NOLA matriarch will get honorary diploma
Honorary bachelor's in education fulfills a lifelong dream
Leah Jackson

NATCHITOCHES – Northwestern State University will award an honorary bachelor of science degree in elementary education to Noella Lyons Black of New Orleans, a former student  who attended Louisiana State Normal College, as NSU was then known, in the 1940s and will celebrate her 94th birthday on Christmas Day. More than 25 members of the Black family will join her for the university’s Dec. 16 fall commencement ceremonies, fulfilling a lifelong goal for the matriarch who left college just a few credits shy of graduation.  

“I always intended someday to go back to Natchitoches and walk across the stage,” she said.

When given the news, “it literally brought tears to her eyes,” said her grandson Bill Brigman. “She’s not often speechless, but this time she was. Her first comment was ‘How did you know I always wanted this?’ She is excited to drive back up to Natchitoches and see the campus again and receive this capstone recognition in her life.”

Black grew up in Home Place in Plaquemines Parish in a hard-working family of six children and made the journey to Natchitoches by train following in the footsteps of her older sisters who attended Normal in pursuit of being an educator. She attended Normal for three years and was joined by another sister the last year.

“We had to walk downtown and I was in the movie downtown when they shut the movie down and announced Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese,” she remembered. “I knew then our lives would be changed and they were. That stayed in my mind a long time. We were in awe. It changed our world.”

Most of the men from her hometown, including many teachers, quickly enlisted in the military. She was called home by the Plaquemine Parish School Board who asked her to teach fifth grade in Port Sulphur.

“I decided I needed to do my duty because all the boys were doing their duty and going off to war,” she said. She had previously taught lower grades at that same small school during her last year of high school when there was a shortage of teachers. The following year, after attending summer school at Normal, she taught second grade in Port Sulphur until a permanent teacher could be found.

It was during the summer session in Natchitoches that she met the man who would become her husband of 54 years, H. Geyman Black, a Naval officer attending the Navy Flight Preparatory School at NSU. Upon their marriage, she left college with little more than a semester left to graduate to support her husband as he served during World War II. Later, they travelled the country with his job as an engineer for Dupont before settling in New Orleans to raise their family.

“Grandma was always a teacher,” Brigman said. “Formally as a frequent substitute in the local schools in the Algiers area of New Orleans, and always to her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She raised us all with a determination to achieve academically with as much formal education as possible in order to serve in some way.”

Black’s oldest daughter graduated from Tulane Law School and became Chief Counsel for the United States Customs Service. Her son is a physician who opened an obstetrics and gynecological practice in the Hammond area where he has served the population for over 40 years. As the eldest of the grandchildren, Brigman remembered sitting with her diagramming sentences and doing multiplication tables while Black prepared a meal for the family. He recently retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force.

“With her help, guidance and assistance, her other grandchildren have also gone on to complete their college studies and to serve in professional endeavors, including senior U.S. customs agents, law partners, medical professionals and artists,” Brigman said. “None of this could have happened if not for the determination, love and support of our matriarch.”

As a student at Normal, Black was a member of Pi Kappa Sigma Sorority and a maid on the State Fair Court with Ralph Prather as her escort. She lived in Varnado Hall and remembered Mrs. Dean Varnado, Dr. Joe Farrah, who was president from 1941-47, and Dr. John Kyser, who president from 1954-1966.

After settling in New Orleans, Black took some courses at Holy Cross College in new math, children’s literature and other subjects but never completed a degree. Her teaching days were a rewarding experience.

“A former student who now lives in Mississippi called me recently. He wanted to tell me how interesting I had made fifth grade,” she said. “I wondered if I’d made a difference and when that man called me, I thought I had.”

Black has returned to Natchitoches a few times over the years, to see the Christmas lights and watch a granddaughter graduate from the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. These days, she visits her daughter in California, plays bridge and checks Facebook so she can keep up with her children and grandchildren. Her husband died 16 years ago.

Black has waited a long time for formal recognition from the school she loves and her family will be in Prather Coliseum to see her on the stage in cap and gown on Dec. 16.

“I’ve had a great life,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be getting a diploma. Now my dream will be a reality.”