Straight Up History is a digital project dedicated to documenting the history of Straight University, one of the first Historically Black Colleges in the state of Louisiana, which later became Dillard University. PRC’s Operation Comeback program is renovating the last remaining structure of the Straight University campus. Read more stories about the history of Straight University here.

In 1873, Straight University opened the school’s medical department under the leadership of James T. Newman, an African American doctor from New Orleans who previously had a practice in Chicago. When the medical department at Straight opened, 10 students were enrolled in the medical course. All students were male and the class was interracial with both black and white students.

Newman addressed the students on the first day of classes with the following speech to remind them about how momentous the occasion was:

It is no ordinary purpose that calls us together this evening. We do not come to debate any of the vexed questions now agitating our country from one end to the other. We do not come to speculate as to the probable character of the next Cabinet. We do not come to celebrate the commencement of an old and established institution. But we do come to inaugurate a new college devoted to the interests of medicine and surgery, the inauguration of which will mark the commencement of a new epoch in the history of the healing art in this city.1

However, due to a lack of funding, the medical department would be short-lived and would close in 1874. The medical department costed more than other departments and Newman often paid for necessary materials and instruments for the classes out of his own pocket. In 1873, North America and Europe experienced a financial panic that triggered a depression in many countries, including the United States. Additionally, the American Missionary Association that founded Straight University had financially over-extended itself by opening many schools at once.

While in operation, the medical department was host to a notable alumnus, physician James W. Ames. He would go on to Howard University after leaving Straight University and ultimately received his degree from Howard.  In 1894 he moved to Detroit where he became a representative in the Michigan House of Representatives. After seeing black patients being denied care in white hospitals in the city, he led the Allied Medical Society to create the first hospital in Detroit for African Americans in 1918. They named the hospital after Paul Laurence Dunbar, a nationally famous black poet. Dunbar Hospital provided much needed care and training classes for nurses and graduate students. In 1928 it moved to a larger facility. The original Romanesque Revival Style building that housed Dunbar Hospital is currently listed on National Register for its historic significance.2

Dumbar Hospital, Detroit, MI. Photo by Andrew Jameson / CC BY-SA 3.0

[1] Savitt, Todd L. “Straight University Medical Department: The Short Life of a Black Medical School in Reconstruction.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 41, No.2, pp. 179.

[2] National Park Service: Detroit: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed online October 17, 2017.