In the past, CreoleGen.org has profiled many Louisianians who were alumni of the four early historically black colleges in New Orleans – Straight University (1869-1934), New Orleans University (1869-1935), Leland University (1870-1915), and Southern University (1880-1913). In a previous post, we gave an overview of the history of Straight University, which was located on Canal Street.
Plans have recently been announced that the history of the now-defunct Leland University will be documented and displayed through a museum at its second and last campus in Baker, Louisiana. In light of this renewed interest, we have set out to offer a history of this historic college which stood on New Orleans’ Saint Charles Avenue for nearly a half-century.
Just as the Congregational Church supported Straight University through the American Missionary Association and just as the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Freedmen’s Aid Society supported New Orleans University, so too did the American Baptist Free Mission Society support the establishment in 1870 of Leland University.
Among the guiding forces behind Leland, was Holbrook Chamberlain, a merchant from Brooklyn, New York, who was dedicated to ensuring that education was provided to the newly-freed slaves. Chamberlain was an officer of the Free Mission Society and donated twelve hundred dollars of his own money toward the purchase of the site for the university. Additional support came from the Baptist Home Mission Society and the Consolidated American Baptist Missionary Convention. Incorporated in March 1870, classes began on 4 January 1871 in the Free Mission Baptist Church then located on Common Street. The institution was named Leland University in honor of Chamberlain and his wife, whose maiden name was Leland, a descendant of the Reverend John Leland, a prominent Baptist minister and abolitionist.
A large property, previously belonging to the Ogden family, was purchased to serve as the permanent home for the new institution. On the site was a large main home and several buildings for servants. This property was located at Saint Charles Avenue and Audubon Street. The main academic building which housed the chapel on its third floor was completed in 1873 and named University Hall. The University Hall also served as the male dormitory. In 1884, Chamberlain Hall, named in honor of the Chamberlains was completed, serving as the female dormitory. Each of these imposing buildings was three stories in height.
During the near half-century in which Leland was located in New Orleans, eleven presidents, all white presided over the institution. The most prominent years for Leland came under the successive administrations of the Reverend Edward Cushing Mitchell (1887-1900), the Reverend Reese W. Perkins (1900-1912), and the Reverend Alfred A. Earle (1913-1915). While a more thoroughly integrated faculty came into being around the turn of the century, during its early years, Leland had an entirely white faculty consisting of graduates from Harvard, Brown, Wellesley, and other prestigious universities. It is interesting to note that a longtime member and president of the Board of Trustees, was Dr. Henry Lyman Morehouse, namesake of Morehouse College.
There was instruction at the elementary and preparatory level as well as a normal course to prepare teachers, a four-year collegiate course, and a course for theology students. From the outset, the preparation of teachers and ministers was identified as a particular mission for the university. The courses offered included algebra, geometry, Greek, trigonometry, physics, rhetoric, government, English literature, German, Spanish, French, philosophy, political economy, and several classes in theology.
In 1887, under the administration of the Reverend Edward C. Mitchell, plans were made to admit students to a Medical Department, although that project was never brought to fruition. In 1892, efforts were made a forming a Law School at the request of several students, although this plan likewise did not materialize. It is interesting to note that just two years after the attempt by Leland, New Orleans University did successfully open a Medical Department. The request by the students to establish a Law Department came, just a few years after Straight University closed its short-lived but impactful law school.
President Mitchell also sought to develop more diverse funding sources for the school after the Baptist Home Mission Society began to wean the school from its dependence upon that body in the 1890s. An increasing degree of support came from the black Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention, which is now in its 141st year. The President also received some support from the Slater Fund, which supported black industrial education. This support was not long-lasting however, with Mitchell constantly attempting to demonstrate that industrial training did make up a significant portion of the school’s curriculum. Each student was required to spend at least one hour of the day in the industrial classes, doing work about the campus, or helping on the university’s farm which helped to defray costs for students who could not afford the full tuition. The total expenses for a boarding student averaged about eighty dollars a year.
In his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” Dr. W.E.B. DuBois cited Leland as one of the Negro colleges helping to develop well-trained leaders for the black race. Among the members of the “Talented Tenth,” who were graduates of Leland were dentist Dr. Teonis Wilturner, educator Mrs. Rosabella Hopes Banks (mother of Myrtle R. Banks), the Reverend Moses S. Gordon, educator Alfred C. Priestley, Sr., educator Lydia Bauduit, and Dr. Joseph S. Clark, the longtime President of Southern University.
In the early twentieth century, hostility from its white neighbors increased, as the area where Leland was situated, namely Saint Charles Avenue, became a more prominent residential area. That fact combined with the need for an institution like Leland closer to the rural sections of the state led the Board of Trustees to agree in 1913 that the university should move. Courses continued while the board considered possible locations. The Hurricane of 1915, which had a disastrous effect on many historic buildings in New Orleans, severely damaged the campus, necessitating the closure of Leland University. The black Baptists of the state were successful in reopening Leland in 1923 in Baker, Louisiana, where it continued to produce distinguished graduates until 1960.
Sources: Janice Richard Johnson, Leland University in New Orleans 1870-1915 (Unpublished dissertation), December 1996, University of New Orleans; and Forty-Fourth Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Leland University, New Orleans: Leland University, 1913 (online: www.archive.org). Photograph of Reverend Pierce and original report card in possession of the author.
Jari C. Honora