When Dillard University was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 10, 2003, the nomination cited the historic college’s “statewide significance in the areas of education and African-American heritage.” It also praised the formal architecture and landscape design of the campus.
Although Dillard University was chartered in 1930, its roots stretch back to 1869, making this year its 150th anniversary. In honor of Black History Month, the Preservation Resource Center will host a program on Feb. 20 exploring how Dillard University was founded and the factors that lead to its campus being located in Gentilly.
Historian Malik Bartholomew, a graduate of Dillard University and owner of Know NOLA Tours, will provide historical context for how two early African-American colleges — Straight University and New Orleans University — merged to form Dillard. This presentation is free to the public, but a suggested donation of $10 will support the installation of a plaque at the site of the original main campus building of Straight University. The plaque is being produced by the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation in partnership with the PRC. Donations to this plaque project also can be made by calling 504.581.7032.
Straight University, which dates to 1869, was founded by the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church, an abolitionist group that assisted philanthropist Seymour Straight in opening the university. It would be one of the first African-American universities in the state of Louisiana. (In 2017, PRC completed a renovation of the last standing building of Straight University, a two-story double-gallery house at 1423 N. Claiborne Ave. Built between 1866 and 1871, the building served as Straight University’s Boarding House and Dining Hall.)
New Orleans University had been founded in 1872 by the Methodist Episcopal Church. By the early 20th century, both New Orleans University and Straight University “had insufficient funding and were looking for new sites closer to the city’s black population,” according to the National Register nomination. “New Orleans University also operated Flint-Goodrich Hospital, which would be included in the merger as well.”
The cornerstone of Dillard University’s campus was laid on May 27, 1934, and the college opened on Sept. 24, 1935. Campus architect Moise Goldstein designed the Classical Revival style for the stately main buildings, which are surrounded by formal landscaping. “Dillard’s signature, besides its gleaming white buildings, is its landscaping,” the National Register listing says. “At the very front, along Gentilly (Boulevard), is a grassy lawn. Then begins a broad central green with a roughly 700-foot ‘avenue of oaks’ reaching deep into the campus.”
“Dillard University surely has one of the country’s most beautiful and serene campuses,” wrote Donna Fricker in a 2003 article in Preservation in Print magazine.
Dillard remains a major source of pride in New Orleans’ higher education community. In 2015, Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington — who set up a scholarship program in the theater department — delivered the commencement speech, telling the Dillard graduates: “Don’t just aspire to make a living. Aspire to make a difference.”