Dillard University’s Influence Has Deep Roots Throughout Louisiana
The first African American physician is a graduate of New Orleans Medical University
now known as Dillard University will receive a historic marker in 2018.
By Ashlyn Harris
Some might say Emma Wakefield was not destined for greatness. Her family experienced one tragedy after another in her hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana. Once a prominent African American family, Wakefield’s brother was lynched and her father became a disgraced state senator. So eventually, Wakefield’s family was run out of town and forced to rebuild.
But despite her turbulent past, in 1897, Wakefield became the first African American woman to earn a medical degree from New Orleans Medical University, the precursor of Dillard University, and practice in Louisiana.
Even before it became Dillard, the historically black institution that now sits on Gentilly Boulevard produced leaders.
Now with the help of historians like Phebe Hayes, Wakefield’s accomplishments will be recognized with a historic marker. In 2018, the approved plaque will be placed in the heart of New Iberia on Main Street in the Bouligny Plaza. Hayes’s group is raising money to pay for the marker.
“This marker for Dr. Wakefield is important because it’s not just about her but, also about community education,” said Hayes, founder of the Iberia African American Historical Society, Inc. “Children in our schools aren’t learning about some of the people in their community that paved the way for them. We have to be responsible for learning, knowing and doing the research of our history.”
After earning her degree with honors Wakefield went on to take the Louisiana Board of medical examination and passed at the top of her class. She was awarded her medical license April 15, 1897.
Hayes petitioned for Wakefield to be recognized as the first African American physician in Louisiana as an important step for generations to come.
“Dr. Wakefield’s will be the first of several markers introduced to the New Iberia community provided by the Iberia African American Historical Society,”Hayes said.
According to Hayes, in a newspaper clipping Wakefield had two medical offices in New Orleans for a short period before moving to San Francisco where she continued to practice medicine.