The First Decade Dillard University

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Dillard University Rosenwald Hall 1938

Dillard University was founded as the result of a merger between two universities which were founded shortly after the end of the Civil War. Straight College and New Orleans University were established by abolitionist churches to provide higher education for African Americans in Louisiana who had been freed from slavery. Educating slaves was prohibited by law in Louisiana, although some illegal schools did exist during the time of slavery.

New Orleans University began as the Thomson Biblical Institute in 1866. It was begun by the Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been active in the fight against slavery. The Thomson Biblical Institute, founded to train freed African Americans as clergy, did not prosper and in 1869 became the Biblical Department of the Union Normal School, also created by the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Opened on November 1, 1869 in a two-story building at Camp and Race Streets, facing Coliseum Square a few blocks from the Mississippi River, the Union Normal School trained African-American teachers on the first floor. There were three classrooms and a recitation room. On the second floor, where student clergy were taught, there were two classrooms. At the time, the Union Normal School had 72 students, but by 1873 had grown to a student body of 335. At that time, the name of the school was changed to New Orleans University.

These Straight University students drove 26,000 miles in this Ford truck from 1918-1921 to raise funds for the university.







Among the most significant advocates for New Orleans University was the Rev. Emperor Williams, born a slave in 1826. A master mason, he was granted his freedom in 1858, but his wife’s master refused an offer of $2,000 for her freedom. She remained a slave until after the Civil War.

When New Orleans University moved Uptown, to a location on St. Charles Avenue bounded by Valmont and Leontine Streets, Rev. Williams spoke at the corner stone laying ceremony and told those in attendance: “I wonder if this is the world I was born in! For 20 years, I was a slave on these streets. It was a penitentiary offense to educate a Negro. I have seen my fellow-servants whipped for trying to learn, but today here I am, on this great avenue, in this great city, with bishops and elders and the people of the Great Methodist Episcopalian Church, speaking at the breaking of ground where a building is to be erected for the education of the children of my people. I wonder if this is the world I was born in.”

Straight University Home Economics Class of 1907

Straight University Home Economics Class of 1907A second institution for the education of freed slaves, Straight University, was founded in June 1869 by the American Missionary Association, another abolitionist organization and an agency of the Congregational Church. The university was named for Seymour Straight, a Baptist layman, educator, businessman, philanthropist, a member of the New Orleans City Council, and an unwavering opponent of slavery. However, unlike New Orleans University, Straight University was non-denominational.


The first building to serve as Straight University, located at Esplanade Avenue and North Derbigny Street, was destroyed by fire—likely arson—in 1877. A new central building was constructed on Canal Street at the corner of Tonti Street. Straight University initially promoted training in the professions of law and medicine. It soon expanded to include Whitin and Stone Halls, dormitories for men and women, respectively. Straight University also found it imperative to offer programs in manual arts and teacher training to expand the student body. As former Confederates regained power in New Orleans and Louisiana government and set in motion the rollback of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow, segregation, and bigotry authorized by the law, there were fewer opportunities in medicine and the law for African Americans. Nevertheless, it was Straight University that produced great African-American civic leaders like Dr. Louis Martinet and Rudolphe L. Desdunes who fought the segregationist doctrines upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court until the advent of the Civil Rights Revolution which began in the 1950s.

Eventually, in 1930, under financial duress imposed by the Great Depression, New Orleans University and Straight University merged at the urging of philanthropists Edgar Stern and Julius Rosenwald. On September 24, 1935, Dillard University opened its doors for the first time. We will continue with the next decade in the April issue of the President’s Newsletter.

To be continued…