George Leon Netterville Jr. (1906-2000)

George Leon Netterville Jr.
George Leon Netterville Jr.

George Leon Netterville, the controversial president of Southern University, was born in the Ascencion Parish section of Donaldsonville, Louisiana on July 16, 1906. In his youth, he attended the local segregated schools. He received his BA in education from Southern University in 1932 and his MA from Columbia University in New York in 1934. Netterville initially worked with the National Benefit Insurance Company for four years before becoming an education advisor for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Netterville returned to Southern University in 1938 as the dean of men and business manager for the university. He was also the president of Southern’s alumni association. In 1967, he became the president for finance and business affairs and also served as the president of the Black Business Managers Association of Louisiana. Netterville officially became the third president of Southern University in 1968. During his tenure, he was responsible for obtaining over ten million dollars in federal funding, which was used for constructing buildings and academic programming.

In 1972, a campus organization called Students United led a series of protests at the university. At the time, Southern had the largest enrollment of any historically black institution (HBCU), with over 10,000 students on the campus. Yet, there was not enough housing available for all of the students. Bedding was torn and worn out, and there was not enough funding for activities. The students wanted a more responsive administration and courses in African American history.

After the arrest of four students by Baton Rouge police, the organization’s leaders met with President Netterville, asking him to secure the release of the students. When a security guard saw a large group of students entering the administration building, a call was made to the local police, reporting that President Netterville was being held hostage in his office. Netterville had actually told the students that he was going to police headquarters but asked the Students United leaders to wait for him in his office. There is no evidence, however, that he left campus. Meanwhile more than 300 local police, along with the Louisiana National Guard, arrived on campus armed with a tank and riot gear. They ordered the students to vacate the administration building.

The officers threw tear gas canisters at students who had gathered outside, and when one student threw a canister back at the officers, gunshots rang out. No students were armed at the time. After the smoke cleared, two students were dead, Denver Smith and Leonard Brown. Netterville fired professor of engineering, George W. Baker Jr., and chairman of the civics department, Joseph Johnson, for advising students to protest by boycotting classes. Pressured by local officials, however, Netterville retired from his position as university president after the incident.

On February 12, 2000, George Leon Netterville died at his home in Baton Rouge at the age of 93. Netterville’s wife, Rebecca, and son, George Leon Netterville III, both preceded him in death. Former President Netterville is buried in the Southern Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum in Baton Rouge, and is survived by his grandchildren.