‘A sign of awakening’: The birth of Dillard University
On Jan. 29, 1929, more than 30 public leaders and educators of all races, religions and ages gathered at the behest of A.D. Danzinger, then president of the Association of Commerce in New Orleans, to explore the possible merger of two existing and upstanding historically black universities in the Crescent City: the all-male New Orleans University and its all-female counterpart, Straight College. What resulted was the signing in 1930 of the charter for Dillard University, a private, rigorous, liberal arts institution of higher education in the Gentilly neighborhood. Five years later, the first classes were held on the newly minted university’s sprawling campus in Gentilly.
Dillard and its 55-acre campus have become social, educational and cultural institutions in New Orleans, attracting students and faculty of all races from dozens of states and several foreign countries. With an enrollment of nearly 1,200 and a No. 12 ranking among Historically Black Colleges and Universities by U.S. News & World Report, Dillard even survived the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a recovery that included the restoration and refurbishing of 32 campus buildings and an innovative partnership with the Louisiana Recovery School District aimed at revolutionizing teacher education. To this day, Dillard remains a vibrant beacon of higher learning while retaining its small, cozy, personally attentive atmosphere.
- Dillard traces its beginnings to 1869 and the founding of its forerunner institutions, New Orleans University and Straight College. Both were created in 1869 during the post-war Reconstruction era, the result of a partnership between the federal Freedman’s Bureau and Northern missionaries dedicated to uplifting the area’s newly freed slaves as well as the free people of color and Creoles who populated the city before the Civil War.
- The new university’s namesake was Dr. James Hardy Dillard, a professor and dean at Tulane, a trustee at William & Mary, and a former trustee of both NOU and Straight.
- Among those present at the 1929 meeting that gave birth to Dillard were representatives of Flint-Goodridge Hospital and Training School, an institution that dated back to 1889. The hospital became part of Dillard along with its administrating university.
- Local lawyer William Walter Young drafted the Dillard University charter, which was adopted by the involved institutions on June 6, 1930. Crucially, although Dillard would primarily serve the African-American population, the charter said in terms of student admission there “shall be no distinction as to race, color, sex, or religious belief.”
- The charter allowed for a 17-member board of trustees; the newly seated entity named local businessman Edgar B. Stern its first president.
- Dr. Will W. Alexander, a prominent figure in the city’s early civil rights movement, was named Dillard’s first president, albeit on an interim basis while plans continued to be laid and funds raised to erect the new university. He accepted his appointment in October 1931 and served as Dillard president in 1935-36.
- The New Orleans City Council in December 1930 formally approved the ordinance allowing the construction of the new campus on Gentilly Avenue on what at the time was called the Rosehill tract.
- The total student registration for Dillard’s inaugural academic year was 281, easily topping the anticipated enrollment of 200, and was split between 140 men and 141 women.
- Tuition for the 1935-’36 year was set at $50, due in three equal semester installments. Other annual fees, such as the health office and student activities, equaled $21. Room, board and laundry cost $30 per semester.
- Dillard has a friend in musician Ray Charles. In 2003, the entertainer donated $1 million to the university to establish a chair in black culinary studies. Dillard returned the favor later that year by giving Charles — who never went to college — an honorary doctorate. He died the next year, but in 2006 Charles’ estate made another $1 million gift to the school to help it rebuild following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and related flooding.
The list of Dillard University alumni include a wide array of prominent leaders, artists and educators, including comedian Garrett Morris, a cast member of the first edition of “Saturday Night Live”; Lisa Frazier-Page, an author and Washington Post reporter; American Express Corp. Senior Vice President Glenda Goodly McNeal; former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Revius Ortique Jr.; Louisiana Poet Laureate Brenda Marie Osbey; and jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, one of the key figures in New Orleans music in the 20th century. That list of luminaries proves prescient the hopes of the Dillard student newspaper, The Courtbouillion, which in its very first issue wrote: “With the opening of Dillard University, Negro education in the South may be contemplated with less despair than formerly. Here, indeed, is a sign of an awakening.”