Just one year after Louisiana was readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, two colleges were established in New Orleans to educate newly freed slaves and other black residents who wanted a formal education.
That was in 1869. Over time, those schools, which became Straight University and New Orleans University, merged to become Dillard University.
A private, liberal arts school that, despite its small size, regularly cracks the top-20 list in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of historically black colleges and universities, Dillard this week is celebrating reaching its 150th year.
The anniversary, which officials will mark with a gala and the annual commencement ceremony Saturday, marks an important milestone for an institution that at one point looked as if it would succumb to the floodwaters that wreaked havoc on its 55-acre Gentilly campus following Hurricane Katrina.
Enrollment plummeted while debt surged after the storm. And while its current total of 1,300 students is still 40 percent below pre-Katrina levels, the numbers have stabilized, as have the school’s finances, making the school’s sesquicentennial a moment for officials to reflect on how far they’ve come.
“From your trailblazer beginning of educating free slaves after the Civil War to the present moment 150 years later, Dillard has still been advancing a proud tradition of excellence,” City Councilman Jared Brossett told school officials Thursday during a presentation to the council celebrating the institution.
After the 2005 storm, enrollment plummeted from a high of about 2,200 students in the 2004-05 school year to about 850 by 2008-09, officials said.
Money was scarce, and Dillard was forced to borrow $156 million from the U.S. Department of Education to restore buildings that needed to be refurbished after stewing in several feet of floodwater.
“The entire campus was flooded,” said David Page, the school’s vice president of enrollment management. “Each building had some damage to it, if not significant damage.”
By the fiscal year ending in June 2017, the school had operated in the red for two straight years, according to the latest available tax records.
But since then those struggles have eased. A provision in the bipartisan budget deal signed by President Donald Trump in early 2018 wiped away the “crippling” post-Katrina debt of Dillard and two other historically black schools in New Orleans, Dillard President Walter Kimbrough said.
The school’s reputation bounced back, too, in part due to two of its signature programs, film and physics. Over several years, Dillard students became major contributors to movies made in “Hollywood South,” including Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” and Spike Lee’s “Oldboy.”
The school also rose to No. 2 in the country by 2017 in graduating African-Americans with undergraduate physics degrees, according to the American Institute of Physics.
Administrators have been mapping out other ways to ensure the school’s future. They are establishing partnerships with local charter schools, keeping their focus on the university’s top programs and ensuring that a smaller school remains relevant and financially stable.
“The strategic plan calls for us to land between 1,600 and 1,800 students, and I really do believe that a university of that size is still needed in the community, in the world,” said Page. “I think that’s our niche.”
The dream of a school like Dillard existed in New Orleans before the Civil War, according to the school’s archivist, John Kennedy. In those days, free black residents would send their children to schools abroad to become teachers, doctors, lawyers or ministers.
Others sent their children to so-called “native schools,” or illegal schools founded by other black residents in Louisiana, according to “Within These Walls,” a history compiled by Dillard officials that quoted a book by James Anderson titled “The Education of Blacks in the South.”
In 1868, a state constitutional convention provided for the possibility of formal education for African-Americans and established the “civil and political equality of all men.”
The Methodist Episcopal Church (now the United Methodist Church) founded the Freedmen’s Aid Society, which formed the Union Normal School — later New Orleans University — in 1869.
That same year, the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church, now the United Church of Christ, established Straight University, named for Seymour Straight, a Baptist educator and New Orleans City Council member.
Over time, Straight University became known for its training in law and medicine and New Orleans University for its teacher training program.
However, the decades that followed brought hard times. A stagnant economy, growing racial tensions and the hardening of Jim Crow laws, as well as the turmoil of World War I, left both schools struggling. In 1920, sociologist Thomas Jesse Jones visited the two schools and proposed that they merge.
Ten years later, just after the 1929 stock market crash, Dillard University got its charter. In September 1935, despite the weight of segregation and the Great Depression, Dillard opened its doors. It was named in honor of James Hardy Dillard, an academician dedicated to educating African-Americans.
“This historic event represented great triumph for generations of African-Americans,” according to “Within These Walls.”
As it grew, Dillard continued to have a science focus, becoming the first black university in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree-granting nursing program.
Dillard graduates would include civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Andrew Young, a top aide to King who later served as Atlanta mayor and a U.S. congressman; and Alice Dunbar Nelson, a poet and journalist credited with being part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
More recent graduates include famed jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr.; chef and restaurateur Leah Chase; and Carl Stewart, chief judge of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Dillard officials have boasted of the school’s more recent impact, too. After Katrina, Dillard was “the economic engine that got Gentilly restarted,” Kimbrough said, by being the first entity to come back “in a big way” and inspire other businesses there to do the same.
In addition to physics and film, the school has become known for its pre-law program. Of the students in its Legal Education Advancing Diversity program, 85 percent are admitted to law school, compared to 49 percent of African-Americans nationwide, according to Yolanda Page, the school’s vice president of academic affairs.
Recently, the school, in collaboration with Greater New Orleans Inc., added a certificate program in urban water management. It’s the only one of its kind in Louisiana and offers research and advice on public policy issues related to water, Page said.
Overall, the school generates about $83 million in total economic impact for the local and regional economies, according to an analysis by the United Negro College Fund in 2014. The estimate included direct spending by Dillard on faculty, employees, academic programs and operations, and by students.
The report also showed that Dillard generated 778 jobs in the local and regional economies, and that the 2014 graduates were projected to earn a total of $472 million in their lifetimes.
“That is money going right into the local economy,” Kimbrough told the City Council during the presentation Thursday.
While much has changed over the years, officials say one thing has stayed the same: Dillard’s tight-knit community of graduates, alumni and staff.
About 60 percent of the students hail from Louisiana, and many stay in the state after graduation. About 91 percent are African-American.
This year, 94 percent of students received some kind of financial aid in meeting the tuition of $16,580 a year, according to fall 2018 statistics.
“Dillard is a necessity not only for African-Americans around the country and the world, but for New Orleans,” Kennedy, the archivist, said. “Dillard is a jewel for New Orleans.”