BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - If you squint, you might be able to spot the Louisiana State University Golden Girls in an aerial view of the campus during a football game in 1980. If you look really closely, you’ll find two history-makers.
Saundra Mims Minor Route grew up a cheerleader. She was on a squad throughout her elementary and middle school years. She attended McKinley High School, where she brought her cheerleading talents.
“I have a real deep voice. I could yell louder than most any girl around,” she said.
Route thought cheerleading would always be in her future after high school. She attended LSU in the fall 1977. She tried out for the basketball dance group, known as the Tigresses. She was on that team for one basketball season.
But there was a shift in the plans, and it was not even her idea.
“They had never had a black Golden Girl and they decided it was time,” Route told WAFB.
Route started at LSU three years earlier and had never thought of trying out. Then in 1980, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) started encouraging LSU students to try out for the Golden Girls.
“My mom was just like, ‘Just try.’ So I said, ‘Okay. I’ll try [out],’” Paula Jackson said.
“I was thinking I had an opportunity, but at the same time I was thinking they may not pick anybody,” Route said.
After tryouts, neither Route or Jackson made the squad, but Jackson says the LSU Dean of Student Affairs questioned the scoring.
“That’s when they realized that I had actually scored where I was supposed to be, but I just wasn’t chosen, so they decided from there because it wasn’t fair that I should have,” Jackson said.
Route, Jackson, and two other African Americans who were originally named to the alternate list were moved up to the main list.
“I assumed that the NAACP had filed some kind of complaint and they won, and they just moved us up because they put the other black girls on the squad,” Route said.
Jackson and Route soon made it through the program’s intense summer camp and made history in 1980 when they became the first African American LSU Golden Girls.
“I was, at the time, probably 20. I had to be in my 30s before I realized that was big,” Route said.
All of their hard work landed them in Tiger Stadium.
“At that moment, it was just like something explosive,” Route said of walking into the stadium for the first time.
Being part of the world-renowned LSU Golden Girls was no doubt an honor for Jackson and Route, but not every memory is a good one.
“Everybody kind of tried to be nice, but everybody wasn’t nice. I would say nobody was just cruel and mean, but there was a presence that you knew you weren’t quite welcome with everybody,” Route said.
“It wasn’t all of the girls, but it was a group of them that really just did not want us there and they made it known that they did not want us there,” Jackson said.
The two women depended on each other during their time on the Golden Girls squad.
“We were support for each other. We leaned on each other,” Route said.
Both women practiced relentlessly to prove they belonged on the squad.
“The whole experience was very hard for me,” Jackson said.
“Do these routines over and over to make sure I had everything, every step, every kick, ’cause I wanted to be my best at that,” Jackson explained. “I didn’t want their negative emotions toward me to affect what I was there to do.”
But that wasn’t enough for either dancer to come back. Jackson transferred the next year to Southern University. Route stayed at LSU, but not as a Golden Girl.
“It was as if the fun, the little fun, giddy part, it was ya’ know, just snapped out. It wasn’t there. It was really about business,” Route said. “That wasn’t what I was used to when it was an auxiliary, something that was supposed to be fun. I wouldn’t say it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of stress.”
Both Jackson and Route set out into uncharted territory and ended up making the history books, but if it wasn’t for those supporters in the shadows, the names Paula Jackson and Saundra Mims Minor Route might not have ever been recognized.
“A lot of those adult people, we never knew them. I didn’t know who it was. We just knew that some people had really pushed for us,” Route said.
Jackson grew up in Louisiana, but now lives in Arizona, where she teaches Zumba. Route says she attends at least one LSU game year with family and friends.