May is graduation season in the Crescent City. As young minds contemplate their past and future awaiting to receive their degree, family members will sit and watch. This is the only time of the year when entire families, from brothers and sisters to great grandparents, explore the Big Easy together. Many are visiting for the first time and others are themselves alumni of one of our many prestigious institutions of higher learning that go back 184 years!
There are fifteen colleges or universities with in fifty miles of the French Quarter according to the 2016/2017 U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics survey. Southern University of New Orleans has the largest graduating class for a four-year enrollment with 2,430 students. The region’s smallest group of graduates of a four-year school is the Saint Joseph Seminary College located in St. Benedict, La. This male only academy boasts a whopping 154 students! I would like to highlight the four oldest located inside of Orleans Parish.
The roots of this internationally esteemed university can be traced back to three American doctors who were interested in educating future physicians and to conduct research on tropical diseases. Doctors Thomas Hunt, John H. Harrison and Warren Stone would establish the Medical College of Louisiana in 1834. In 1847, it would later be incorporated as the medical program of the University of Louisiana.
Paul Tulane, who was born in Princeton, New Jersey to slave owning refugees from Haiti. During the 1799 Haitian revolution his father narrowly escaped Haiti when his slaves revolted. Tulane would move to New Orleans in 1822 make his fortune as a wholesaler of dry goods, clothing and eventually real estate. In 1882, Paul Tulane would donate $363,000 to the University of Louisiana. In appreciation, the school would be renamed Tulane University of Louisiana.
Another important moment in the history of Tulane was the establishment of the H. Sophie Newcomb College. Josephine Newcomb would donate after a period of years and numerous donations, more than three million dollars in the memory of her daughter who died at fifteen. This all female college was the first women’s coordinate college inside an existing university. Today, the name Newcomb is often associated with highly collectible pottery, stemming from their pottery program. Examples can be viewed on permanent exhibit in Madame John’s Legacy, 632 Dumaine St, New Orleans.
Photo Credit: Madame John’s Legacy
In 1894, Tulane would relocate to their present location on St Charles Avenue. The very illustrious list of alumni includes Newt Gingrich, US Senator; Jerry Springer, TV show host; and Alceé Fortier, author of Br’er Rabbit to name a few. The president of Tulane resides in the former home of Samuel Zemurray, President of United Fruit Company.
Tulane Stadium was also home to the New Orleans Saints before the Superdome was built in 1975. Their stadium was demolished in 1979 and the Tulane Green Wave would play at the Dome until they returned to campus in September of 2016. Yulman Stadium, a 30,000 seat venue, would open to the delight of sports fans who have been yearning for the return of Uptown football for decades.
The Jesuits priests were present in the area as missionaries long before the first tree had been cleared for what would become the French Quarter. Unfortunately for the Jesuits, the Spanish would take control of the city and the new government would confiscate all land and property of the Jesuits and give it to the incoming Capuchin Order. Most of this land is where the Central Business District (CBD) is today. In 1847, the Jesuits were allowed back into the city. They purchased and on what was once their plantation and opened a school and church. The College of the Immaculate Conception would spring from this corner on what is now the corner of Baronne and Common Street.
Photo Credit: Carlo Gambino
It was in 1886 when the Jesuits purchased a tract of land formerly part of Etienne de Boré’s plantation. The purchase was negotiated for $22,500 with the aid of Judge Edward Douglass White, whose statue can be viewed on Royal Street in front of the Supreme Court Building. In May of 1892, the first mass was held in the newly christened Most Holy Name of Jesus Church.
Loyola College opened in 1904 and its first classes were held in the back of the church. It was designated as a university in 1912. Some past alumni include Harry Connick, Jr, musician; Harry Shearer, voice actor on the Simpsons; Ellis Marsalis, Musician.
Dillard University is also the product of a marriage between two smaller schools. During Reconstruction programs were initiated to try and educate and train the freed slaves. This was mostly the work of churches and social aid clubs. The American Missionary Association would establish in 1868 Straight University. In the following years, Straight University would be known for their law program that focused on Civil Rights. Also, in 1868, The Freedman’s Aid Society opened the Union Normal School. The society is credited with opening over 500 schools dedicated to educating the freed people as students with the goal to retain and train a portion of their student body as teachers themselves.
In 1930, Straight College and New Orleans University (renamed from Union Normal School, 1873) would merge to become Dillard University. It is named for James Hardy Dillard (1856-1940). Born in Virginia to slave owning parents, Dillard would become an advocate for the education and advancement of the African Americans that were newly freed. While teaching Latin at Tulane University, Dillard would advocate for the integration of a co-educational and interracial student body. This did not happen At Tulane but did at Dillard where he sat on the board of trustees.
Past alumni include Martin Luther King, SR, father of slain civil rights leader of the same name; Khalid Abdul Muhammad, controversial leader in the Nation of Islam and Black Panther Party; Beah Richards, pioneering African American actress.
Photo Credit: Public Domain
The Xavier University website proudly asserts that it is the only African American Catholic University out of 251 Catholic Colleges located in the United States. The college began as a normal secondary school for African Americans in 1915. It was founded by Saint Katharine Drexel, the second American born saint. She was the daughter of a wealthy railroad tycoon who would use her inheritance to finance her missionary work in the west, educating the African and Native Americans.
Photo Credit: Public Domain
In 1925, Xavier Preparatory school would add the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences making it a full fledged university. The gothic administration building was constructed on land chosen by Drexel in 1933. Pope John Paul II addressed an assembly of catholic university deans in the court yard during his 1987 visit to New Orleans. He was not the last world leader to visit the campus.
After Hurricane Katrina, the mostly Muslim nation of Qatar donated $17.5 million dollars for the restoration and improvement of the university. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, leader of Qatar, attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the new pharmacy pavilion in 2008. For the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Barack Obama chose Xavier University for his commemoration speech.
Saint Katharine is the patron saint of racial justice. Many of Xavier’s grads have themselves been pioneers in the advancement of African Americans. Some exemplary examples are Annie Easley, rocket scientist and one of the first female African Americans in her field; Aaron Henry, Civil Rights leader; Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General 2009-2013.
I hope that you enjoyed these brief origin stories of the Big Easy’s four oldest institutions of higher learning. When classes begin in the fall, I will write part two of our University Honor roll. It is my plan to focus on our smaller and community colleges then. Feel free to leave your comments and questions. Thanks for reading.