Day UNO: When New Orleans went to college
The morning of Sept. 5, 1958, brought Louisiana’s political glitterati — including Gov. Earl Long, who made a surprise appearance — to the New Orleans lakefront to officially christen the city’s first publicly funded institution of higher learning. With roughly 2,000 people in attendance inside a former airplane hangar, local and state officials welcomed 1,460 incoming freshmen to the inaugural term of Louisiana State University-New Orleans — LSUNO, for short — in what was hailed as a landmark day for education in the state and, in particular, the city of New Orleans. Created by the State Legislature in 1956, LSUNO filled a crucial gap in the city’s higher-education scene, offering low-cost, commuter-based schooling in Louisiana’s largest city for the first time. But it was even more: LSUNO opened as the first racially integrated public university in the South, with 55 African-American students among the school’s first enrollees.
Nearly six decades later, the modern University of New Orleans — renamed from LSUNO in 1974 — has awarded more than 70,000 degrees, launched more than a dozen NCAA Division I sports teams and has officially been classified as a research university by the Carnegie Foundation. Housed on a sprawling, 195-campus in the Gentilly neighborhood and featuring nearly 500 full-time faculty members, UNO routinely is rated by U.S. News & World Report and other publications as one of the best higher-education bargains in the country, an institution that welcomes working-class students into well-regarded bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs.
- Before the founding of LSUNO, the school’s campus on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain was the site of a U.S. Naval air station. While the new campus covered 178 acres, that land was often muddy and bereft of landscaping — or academic buildings, for that matter.
- “It’s hard to underestimate the pluck of the Louisiana State University in New Orleans freshman class of 1958,” Times-Picayune staffer Dave Walker wrote in 2008. “They attended classes in un-air-conditioned military barracks, parked on an old landing strip and did lab experiments on tables made of repurposed doors.”
- According to local lore — which may or may not be apocryphal, but which is too good not to repeat — students in those early years were said to have occasionally found themselves waving off airplane pilots who, using old charts that still showed an airstrip on the site, mistakenly tried to land there.
- Among UNO’s most noted former faculty members was historian Stephen Ambrose, who founded the Eisenhower Center, a scholarship center, at the school.
- For a time, a filing cabinet at the Eisenhower Center housed Ambrose’s personal collection of World War II artifacts. Those artifacts would be the seeds for Ambrose’s most lasting legacy: the founding of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
- UNO’s athletic teams play as the Privateers, a nod to the pirate Jean Lafitte, who played an instrumental role in the defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
- A particularly memorable moment in UNO’s history came in September 1987, when Pope John Paul II celebrated an outdoor Mass for an estimated 130,000 people on the school’s campus.
- The primary impetus behind the establishment of UNO was the late Theodore Hickey, a long-time New Orleans city councilman and Louisiana state legislator who in 1956 introduced the act that created the institution. In 2014, UNO named the ballroom in its University Center after Hickey, who died in 1993 at 83.
- The other driving force in LSUNO’s early days was its first chancellor, Homer Hit, who had previously served as associate dean of the LSU graduate school. Over the 22 years of his chancellorship, Hitt “laid the groundwork for the modern UNO, helping mold it from a small urban offshoot of Louisiana State University to a major university in its own right,” wrote The Times-Picayune upon Hitt’s death in January 2008.
- Initially, the new college functioned as the New Orleans branch of the main LSU campus in Baton Rouge. That branch status ended in 1962, and in 1974 the state university board of trustees voted 8-2 to rename the school as the University of New Orleans, a move that is said to have greatly assisted the school’s development as an independent institution.
- After suffering significant damage during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, UNO gradually rebuilt and continues to grow. In 2011 it officially became part of the University of Louisiana system.
- From the beginning, LSUNO was intended to be equal to any other state university in Louisiana. Stated then-LSU board of supervisors member Tom Dutton at the opening ceremony: “It was a matter of simple logic that the largest metropolitan area in Louisiana should have a state-supported college. … The people of New Orleans wanted such an institution and wanted it as part and parcel of their state university.”
Although LSUNO opened as a landmark, racially integrated institution, it didn’t happen without a fight. As the university began accepting student applications, roughly 80 black aspiring students applied and were rejected, prompting local civil rights attorney and NAACP leader A.P. Tureaud to file for an injunction in federal district court on behalf of 10 applicants to stop LSU from turning away students based on race. The case was volleyed back and forth until Sept. 8, 1958, when federal judge Herbert Christenberry granted the injunction, clearing the way for 55 African-American students to enroll at the new university. Even a last-ditch appeal by assistant state Attorney General George Ponder failed when an appeals court upheld the injunction days later. In September 2012, when UNO hosted a reunion celebration for the trailblazing 55 back students, one of those first African-American alumni, Janice Coleman-Sawyer, said, “It always takes somebody to turn something around … turn that anger inside out.”