The mission of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture is to research, document, disseminate, preserve, and celebrate African American culture and foodways in the South. New Orleans sits at the historical and cultural intersection of diverse groups with distinct and recognizable pasts. This program aims to understand how African, Caribbean, European, and American cultures coalesced to create a culture that is uniquely African American. The Ray Charles Program takes a deeper look at how African American culture is portrayed and taught in an effort to not only preserve that culture, but allow our students to take ownership of it as well.
The majority of students involved in the Ray Charles Program are from the humanities, especially film, mass communications, English, and theater. Scholarships ranging from $500 to $5,000 are offered to humanities majors with a 2.5 GPA or above every year. However, we accept students from all disciplines and work to incorporate the understanding of material culture into every core subject. Throughout the program, students will have access to the Material Culture Library as well as resources that advance their personal and professional careers, such as mentorship opportunities with local leaders and partnership opportunities with local businesses.
Material culture refers to the physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture. Literature, food, art, film, music, and clothing are all just a small sliver of what represents material culture. To understand material culture, students must develop a firm grasp of African American history and how our culture has formed and evolved over the years.
The vision of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture is to be the premier center for culinary and cultural research in the South. This program is the first of its kind at any HBCU or any American university. Just as Ray Charles himself stressed the ownership of his own music, the Ray Charles Program teaches students the importance of owning and profiting from their own culture. Students in the program walk away with a holistic understanding of the food industry as well as other industries, plus the relevance and value of African American culture as a whole.
The Ray Charles Program is more than just an academic study of material culture. Here, students are able to work on projects that support their majors while earning immediate life and career experiences. The aim of this program is not to view material culture as a singular idea, but rather tie material culture into all fields of academic study offered at Dillard University.
Legendary musician and philanthropist Ray Charles loved down-home cooking. Charles’ mother and grandmother were both sharecroppers. On Charles’ frequent visits to New Orleans, you could find him eating at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, owned by his friends Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. and Leah Chase, in the historic Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
In May of 2003, Dillard University awarded an honorary degree to Ray Charles. During his stay in New Orleans, after private meetings with some of the executive administration at Dillard University under the leadership of former Dillard University President Dr. Michael L. Lomax, Ray Charles expressed his concern for the African American cultural practices and cultural memories that would be lost among future generations. “He talked about traditions of food preparation in the black community that were really a kind of art, that his family had been a part of,” Dr. Lomax told The New York Times. “He wanted to honor his mother, his grandmother and those who had a collective memory of Africa and coming to the New World and creating a cuisine. From his point of view, their knowledge needed to be understood, preserved and transmitted to another generation.”
After careful planning, Ray Charles awarded Dillard University $1 million to establish a program in African American Material Culture with a concentration in the study of African American foodways and material culture in the South. This gift established the first professorship and program of its kind in African American Material Culture at any American university or HBCU. Ray Charles’ vision to preserve the culinary traditions and culture of African Americans in New Orleans and the South would help to create an institution at Dillard University for generations to come.
The Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture is supported by the Ray Charles Foundation.
Material Culture at Dillard University in New Orleans in 2003. Dillard now has a premier program that teaches students and the community about the world-famous New Orleans cuisine. These students will keep the wonderful New Orleans tradition of excellent food alive for many years to come.
This degree-seeking minor program provides an integrative approach to food studies in urban environments, focusing on preparing the next leaders in the food industry field. Successful completion of 6 courses (18 credit hours) and all program activities, under the direction of the Ray Charles program in African American Material Culture and Dillard University Professors are required to earn a minor in Food Studies.
The Story of New Orleans Creole Cooking: The Black Hand in the Pot is a full-length documentary that unveils the untold stories of New Orleans black chefs, cooks, street food vendors, grocers and butchers from 1718 to the present. Highlighting the trials and triumphs of being black, working, cooking and eating in the culinary capital of the United States throughout the centuries. From Nellie Murray, the most sought after Créole de couleur caterer in New Orleans for many premier society balls and parties in the 1890s to the legendary Leah Chase, chef and co-owner of Dooky Chase Restaurant.