From the Oaks

Write Your Legacy: The Sutton legacy – Education passed down through generations

Dr. William Sutton Sr. ’53 holds cap and gown photos of he and his late wife Leatrice Hubbard Sutton ’53. Photo – Sabree Hill | Dillard University

Danielle B. Miller.
February 14, 2023

Dr. William Sutton Sr. ‘53 and Leatrice Hubbard Sutton’s ‘53 love story began on Dillard’s gleaming white and spacious green campus in the late 1940s. The two first generation college students were unaware that the union they formed at Dillard would be the foundation for a family legacy that would impact several generations. 

Dr. and Mrs. Sutton came from humble beginnings. Dr. Sutton grew up in a small county in Mississippi where 11th and 12th grades were not available for Black students. Sutton was persistent in furthering his education and moved 20 miles away from his hometown to complete high school. His efforts proved effective when he received a full academic scholarship to attend Dillard, where he pursued a degree in chemistry and biology. Mrs. Sutton, a Seventh Ward native, decided to stay in New Orleans with her godmother when her family moved to California. Her godmother always talked about becoming a teacher and that inspired Sutton to pursue an education degree at Dillard. 

Dr. and Mrs. Sutton remained active on campus. He was the captain of the football team and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. Mrs. Sutton was a cheerleader, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., and she was voted Miss Dillard her senior year. “The student body thought she would represent the University well. Everybody was happy, especially me,” Dr. Sutton said.

It was a Republican majority that allowed the Senate to block President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in his last year in office and then confirm three of President Donald Trump’s nominees, including one in the final days of his term. It was those new justices that created the majority for the Dobbs abortion decision.

He vividly remembers the homecoming game when she was crowned Miss Dillard. The captain of the football team would assist the University president with the bouquet presentation to Miss Dillard, and that’s when he wanted to pop the question. He asked his fraternity brothers to create a large image of his frat pin to display during the proposal. “I didn’t have money to buy a ring, so I pinned her with my frat pin; but it was so little that nobody knew what it was, so my frat brothers held up the big picture and the crowd went wild,” Dr. Sutton recalls.

After graduating, the couple married in 1954 and continued their journey in education. Mrs. Sutton taught at several public schools in New Orleans, including McDonogh 42 and Osborne Elementary School, before earning a master’s degree in education from the University of New Orleans. Dr. Sutton earned a master’s degree in zoology from Howard University.  During their stint in Washington D.C., Mrs. Sutton also taught in D.C.’s public school system. The couple later returned to Dillard to work as faculty. Mrs. Sutton was the director of student teaching, and Mr. Sutton held the position of assistant professor, associate professor, and later became professor and chairman of the Division of Natural Science, before departing to work on his Ph.D. in protozoology at Howard University. Mr. Sutton then became the first Black vice president of Chicago State and Kansas State Universities, and the president of Mississippi Valley State University, where the administration building is currently named after him. 

The Suttons had six children, all of whom attended HBCUs. Their son, Averell Sutton Sr., followed in his parents’ footsteps and attended Dillard as well. For the Sutton children, growing up in a household with a professor and elementary school teacher as parents, they had a strong foundation that was built on love and knowledge. They were taught the basics, like reading and writing, as well as the importance of having a sense of self-satisfaction, while being encouraged to pursue what interested them the most. As a result, the children became doctors, entrepreneurs and journalists. 

The positive experiences and the personal relationships that Dr. and Mrs. Sutton had with faculty at Dillard, subsequently became important relationships that their children would cherish. Their eldest daughter and anesthesiologist, Sheryl Sutton Smith, called out the names of Dr. Bryant, Dr. Pullen, Dr. Pereaux, Albert W. Dent and the Cook family. “We grew up knowing these people as well. We remember them when we were children,” said Smith, who recalls her siblings having play dates with the Cook children on campus, and as a teen, was a babysitter for their family.

Will Sutton Jr., a columnist for the The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, recalls doing homework, reading and studying in his dad’s office and in the labs with the “pungent smell of formaldehyde in Stern Hall.” He even dissected his first animal at Dillard. “I pursued journalism based on my scientific curiosity developed at home and in Stern. Like a scientist, I wanted to know more and I wanted to find out more about what I didn’t know,” Sutton said.

Not only were their children successful, but their grandchildren became successful authors, journalists and actors as well. “I never thought I’d live to see a grandson of mine have a best seller book and he’s done it,” said Dr. Sutton, as he smiled and held up a hard copy of his grandson Clinton Smith’s III book, “How the Word is Passed,” which was ranked on President Barack Obama’s 2021 favorite books to read. “He was the first person I called when I found out and it was a really remarkable moment because he saw the first Black president say that a book his grandson wrote was one of his favorite books of the year, and that book has a chapter at the end that is about my grandfather,” said Smith. He described his grandfather as a “walking manifestation of the way that education could serve as a catalyst for upward mobility.” Although Mrs. Sutton passed away when Smith was just 20 years old, he remembers her for the immense kindness for which she moved through the world. “My grandmother was just this well of empathy. She was someone who was always thinking about us and the students in her classroom,” Smith said.

When Mrs. Sutton passed away in 2007, Dr. Sutton wanted to honor his wife with a scholarship in her name. He created the Leatrice Sutton Scholarship to help young women who possessed similar qualities as Mrs. Sutton. The scholarship was designed for students whose classification was a sophomore or higher with a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 or higher. The student had to have been an active member of Girl Scouts of America for at least three years, or a member of Delta Sigma Theta. The first scholarship was awarded in the 2010-2011 academic year, for a total of $1,500. Since then, over $12,000 has been awarded to deserving students. Several members of the Sutton family invest money into the scholarship because it is an important way to keep Mrs. Sutton’s spirit alive as young women are encouraged to keep going with a financial boost.
Dr. Sutton also received the best “all-around student award” at commencement in 1954, for leadership, friendship and scholarship. “When I got it, it was $20,” Sutton recalled. The award has since been renamed the William Sutton Prize, and students are now awarded a $1,000 cash prize. Dr. Sutton called it an honor he did not expect. The Sutton family continues to invest in education, keeping their love and legacy with Fair Dillard alive.