2601 Gentilly Boulevard
New Orleans, Louisiana 70122
Our Roots: New Orleans University and Straight University
Dillard University was born from the union of two institutions that served as equity-building engines in the South--New Orleans University and Straight University. After the Civil War, New Orleans experienced an influx of formerly enslaved people. One institution that sought to serve them was Thompson Biblical Institute, founded in 1866 to train freedmen to become ministers. Finding it difficult to philosophically meet the developing Black community where they were, Thompson became a biblical department within Union Normal School in 1869. Union, which was run by the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the United Methodist Church), was established to train African American teachers, providing a significant need throughout the South. Along with that need came a demand for higher education which led Methodist Episcopal Church officials to convert Union to New Orleans University in 1873. The University was located on St. Charles Avenue in an area that was then known as Rickerville. One of the figures who lobbied Louisiana legislators for the university’s charter was Rev. J.C. Hartzell, and among the first to sign the charter for New Orleans University was the formerly enslaved Rev. Emperor Williams.
New Orleans University was part of an ecosystem of institutions designed to educate and support African Americans. Among other institutions that were part of this network was Gilbert Academy which was incorporated into New Orleans University in 1919. Also part of that ecosystem was Flint Medical College, founded in 1889 to meet the demand for trained Black nurses. Later, the University absorbed Phyllis Wheatley Sanitarium, founded in 1896, because of its financial difficulties. The sanitarium was renamed Sara Goodridge Nurse Training School. When lack of funding threatened Flint Medical College’s existence, it joined Goodridge to become Flint-Goodridge Hospital in 1916.
The same year of the founding of Union Normal School, Straight University was founded with support from the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church (now the United Church of Christ). The University was named for businessman and philanthropist Seymour Straight who partnered with the American Missionary Association to provide higher education opportunities for African Americans, post-emancipation. Classes began in a church, but later moved to what is now 1631 Esplanade Avenue. Straight quickly drew the attention of a diverse set of students from other parts of the southern United States, particularly because of their law and medical schools. In 1877, when Union soldiers began to withdraw from New Orleans, Straight’s main campus building was set ablaze, forcing the university to relocate. In 1905, Straight University became Straight College.
The rise of Jim Crow proved to be a significant challenge for New Orleans University and Straight College because of the difficulties African American college graduates had finding professional career opportunities. In New Orleans, African Americans were often forced into domestic and menial labor. At the same time, the economy of the South had become stagnant, particularly with War World I having erupted in 1914. In 1928, Straight College president James P. O'Brien made an appeal to businessman Edgar B. Stern for financial support. O’Brien’s request sparked interest from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the General Election Board of New York and several prominent New Orleanians. The condition was that New Orleans University and Straight College had to consolidate to which each institution’s board of trustees agreed. On June 6, 1930, the newly formed board of trustees for the new institution proposed a charter for the opening of Dillard University. The boards of New Orleans University and Straight College were not the only groups that cooperated. Four years later, in 1934, alumni from both institutions united to form the Dillard University National Alumni Association.
A New Era
The new University would be named for James Hardy Dillard, an educational reformer who promoted racial harmony. A member of the Episcopal church, Dillard was driven by his determination to close racial barriers in education even though his parents had been slave owners. After emancipation, Dillard was dissatisfied with the treatment of former enslaved people which thrust him into becoming known as one of the best known and most active proponents of improved educational opportunities for African Americans in the South. Dillard served as vice president of the Phelps-Stokes Fund which worked to improve educational opportunities for African Americans, and he also sat on the Southern Education Board, the General Education Board and the Louisiana State Board of Education. Dillard also headed the Free Kindergarten Association and the New Orleans Public Library. It is said that Booker T. Washington once proclaimed that Dillard could speak “to the poorest Negro in Alabama the same way the he speaks to President Taft.”
Dillard was more than a figurehead, however. Another part of his lasting impact was the development of the University’s seal which includes the motto “Ex Fide Fortis.” Dillard suggested that the anchor would represent steadiness and the scales would represent justice. The motto was originally translated by Dillard as “From Confidence Courage.”
Opening its doors in 1935, Dillard University was established to serve as an educational center of excellence in the South. The campus, which remains in its original location, had the unique attribute of being the first HBCU with a sound architectural plan. The new liberal arts university subscribed to the DuBoisian notion of disciplining the mind and stimulating both “the creation of ideas and the development of the higher qualities of the individual.” The University maintained its focus on serving the Black community, as well. While the board chose to no longer continue the work of Gilbert Academy, they continued to serve New Orleans’ Black community through Flint-Goodridge Hospital of Dillard University which opened in 1932. The hospital, led by Albert W. Dent, provided acute care while serving as a training ground for African American physicians. This was significant because African American doctors were not allowed to practice in most hospitals. Eventually, Flint-Goodridge would discontinue operations as a hospital in 1983.
Dillard’s first acting president was Will W. Alexander who served from 1935 to 1936. At the time of his appointment, he was director of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation which actively campaigned against lynching and conducted research studies of issues pertaining to “Negro welfare” and other Southern “problems.” During Alexander’s short tenure, one of his most significant contributions was recruiting an outstanding Black faculty. Drawing from a pool of noted scholars, Alexander assembled a stellar group of educators: Horace Mann Bond, dean of the university, psychology and education faculty; Charles Wesley Buggs, biology; Byrd Dewey Crudup, physical education; Frederick Douglass Hall, music; Rudolph Moses, English; Lawrence D. Reddick, history; and J.G. St. Clair Drake, sociology and anthropology. Another significant hire was S. Randolph Edmonds who developed the University’s speech and theater program. Regarded by many as the “dean of Black academic theater,” Edmunds work led to the establishment of the first degree-granting theater program at an HBCU.
The new era continued with the appointment of William Stuart Nelson as Dillard’s first president in 1936. A noted educator and administrator in higher education, Nelson became the first African American to lead the institution. During his four-year tenure (1936-1940), Nelson took to heart the missionary ideal of liberal arts education in a manner that would leave a lasting impression on the University’s curriculum. He was instrumental in the implementation of a major arts festival. The gathering created a venue for local artists and national figures to enjoy and debate the nature of African American art, past, present and future. Nelson sought to foster a sense of “cultural enlightenment and participation.” His dedication to the arts laid the foundation for a tradition at Dillard that extends to the present day.
2601 Gentilly Boulevard
New Orleans, Louisiana 70122