A purpose driven pioneer: Marietta Mischia

11 years after the Supreme Court’s ban on Jim Crow’s “separate but equal,” FAU graduated its first-ever integrated class.


Jasmine Die, Copy-Desk Chief

On April 24, 1965, Florida Atlantic University honored its first-ever graduating class at First Presbyterian Church in Boca Raton where two Black students, Marietta Cochran Mischia and Vera Wilson LeGrier, received their degrees alongside non-Black students. 

Mischia, a sharecropper’s daughter who came up from extreme poverty to attend FAU in 1964 is a story of perseverance and great success. 

Even in its infancy, the university played an important role in supporting minority populations in Florida. 

“FAU was the only [public state] university that accepted Blacks at the time,” Mischia said.

In the early 1960s, Black students at FAU fit into a much larger piece of history– nation-wide efforts towards desegregating higher education. 

Paradoxically, some of the most effective efforts towards desegregation took incentive from the Supreme Court’s legalization of segregation.

The Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” in 1896 “Plessy v. Ferguson prompted demands from Black Americans nation-wide for access to equal education and opportunity. 

The court’s ruling gave Black Americans more reason to argue for integration as segregation in higher education inherently left them at a disadvantage.

The efforts to desegregate schools culminated May 17, 1954, in Topeka, Kan., where the Supreme Court abolished school segregation in the landmark case “Brown v. Board of Education”, putting a legal end to Jim Crow’s “separate but equal.” 

This ruling, however, only marked the beginning of a decades-long struggle to integrate schools. 

It was not until 1962 that James Meredith integrated a previously all-white higher education institution, the University of Mississippi.

Despite vehement opposition from students and faculty, Meredith earned a degree in political science. However, Meredith faced violent mobs and chaotic encounters. Governmental personnel eventually sent U.S. Federal Marshals and Guardsmen to protect him.

Further south, in Boca Raton, 1963, Marietta Cochran Mischia and Vera Legrier Wilson became the first Black Americans to be admitted to FAU.

Unlike Meredith, Mischia recounts a rather positive experience at the university during a time when fair treatment of Black Americans in higher education was rather uncommon. 

When asked about discrimination and barriers to a safe and equal education, Mischia affirms she did not face any. 

“There was a professor or two who seemed not to have high expectations of Black students, maybe because we were the first Black students in his class, but that was not indicative of all the professors,” Mischia recalled. “There were professors who were respectful, intelligent, and accommodating. I feel they wanted all students to achieve.”

She continues to express that to her knowledge no form of violence or repression was ever directed against her or Wilson, a close friend of hers during her time at FAU.

When deciding what university to attend, she did not have many options at the time. 

“It was a dream and endeavor of mine of a lifetime to attend any university, but FAU was the only state University open to Blacks at the time,” Mischia commented.

Mischia explains that her ambition to attend University and aspirations to establish a career in education were influenced by her childhood experiences. 

“I was deprived of the experiences deemed necessary for a child to develop to the best of his ability socially, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Therefore, it was difficult to pursue my serious interest in reading,” Mischia wrote in an undated autobiography. 

Yearning to have access to more books, Mischia resolved that she would pursue a career in education– if permitted the opportunity to do so. 

“I early determined that teachers had the access to all and any kind of books, hence I wanted to

be a teacher,” she wrote.

However, Mischia writes that her ambitions were restricted by the social and political circumstances at the time.

“After high school due to circumstances beyond my control (namely economics and segregation and discrimination laws) I was unable to continue my education,” she wrote. 

The 1954 Supreme Court decision allowed Mischia to continue her education, changing the trajectory of her life.

“I was able to continue my education, due to the decision of the Supreme Court, that Negroes could attend any Public Institution,” she recalled. “I suppose this was the most significant happening in my life.”

Living in Miami-Dade County, Mischia was approximately 50 miles away from the university. After her commute from Miami to Boca Raton via the Greyhound bus, Mischia would walk over a mile from the bus stop to the recently-opened university, which did not yet have a stop of its own.

“There was no paved road. There were just dirt roads and fields that I had to walk through,” Mischia said.

Nonetheless, she asserts this journey was her best option. 

“It was convenient. They accepted me,” she said.

Haitian American Business Journal highlights the establishment of Toussaint Loverture Elementary School in 1989 issue.

Mischia felt that activities during her time emphasized important values like hard work, perseverance, and inclusivity despite status and background.

After graduating from the College of Education in 1965, Mischia went on to become a community leader in Miami-Dade County, working both in education and social services. 

Following her principalship at Earlington Heights, in 1989 Mischia founded Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School, the first elementary school in Little Haiti, where she wore the title of both school principal and classroom teacher.

“I bought every piece of furniture for the school. I hired every teacher for the school,” she said.

She mentions that there were challenges in running a school in Little Haiti at the time due to many students not having a “formal education,” but school was convenient due its proximity to their neighborhoods.

Under Mischia’s leadership, the school managed to employ a teaching staff of over 200 and be of service to Little Haiti’s underserved immigrant population with a student body of over 1,000.

She went on to attain her Ph.D. in educational leadership at Nova Southeastern University in 1992. 

Marietta Mischia (left) with young Shannon Cochran (right). Courtesy of Shannon Cochran.

Shannon Cochran, Mischia’s granddaughter, explains that her grandmother has been a great inspiration and influence for her success.

“My grandmother instilled the value of education in me at a young age,” she said.

Mischia would attend reading events at the local library and owned a tutoring center in Miami. 

“My grandmother’s love and passion for education and the way she fearlessly achieved her educational goals in the face of adversity, racism and segregation taught me how to be tenacious, ambitious and resilient,” Cochran said. “Because I had someone to look up to as an example, I knew that I had the power to be succeeding in the field of education while also creating my own legacy.”

Mischia hopes to encourage individuals who feel they come from a disadvantaged background. 

“No matter the obstacles, barriers, and misfortunes, persevere and develop a commitment for whatever your goal is and do your very best to achieve it,” Mischia said.

Editor’s note: This story is in the UP’s latest issue that can be found physically on the distribution boxes around campus or digitally through our Issuu page.

Jasmine Die is the Copy-Desk Chief  for the University Press. For more information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].