Gilbert Academy

Gilbert Academy was a premier preparatory school for African American high school students in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Gilbert Academy
5318 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana

TypeCollege-preparatory school


The Union Army captured New Orleans April 25th, 1862, one year into the U.S. Civil War, and the United States Department of War set up the Department of the Gulf as part of the United States Army. Nathaniel P. Banks, the Gulf Department's second commander, appropriated the vacant mansion of Confederate exile Pierre Soulé on Esplanade Avenue to house the Colored Orphans Home in 1863.[1] Banks appointed fellow Bostonian Louise De Mortie to run the Home[1] (Some sources name De Mortie herself as the founder).[2]

The Orphans Home remained in the Soulé mansion under De Mortie's care until 1866. She fundraised tirelessly, holding concerts and fairs at the Soulé mansion itself and touring the country to raise money until her death from yellow fever in New Orleans in 1867.[2] Banks himself assisted in raising money for the orphanage, as evidenced by his name appearing on the imprint of cartes de visit sold on behalf of the institution.[3]

When the Civil War ended, New Orleans residents returned to reclaim their homes, Pierre Soulé among them. This necessitated finding the Colored Orphans Home new quarters. The Freedmans Bureau, a government agency created in 1865, transferred the children in 1866 to a Marine Hospital being built to replace one destroyed by explosion in 1861.[4] Due to cost overruns and construction problems the hospital was never finished, requiring the children be moved yet again with a year. A combination of private donations and public funds enabled supporters to purchase a former sugar plantation 104 miles west of New Orleans.[5] The orphans were moved there in 1867, to the area that eventually became today's town of Baldwin, Louisiana. The hope was that the Colored Orphans Home could become self-sufficient in its new location. However, promised public funds were withdrawn and a series of setbacks at the plantation made this impossible. Most of the orphans were placed with families by the end of 1874.[5]

As early as 1865 the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) began funding free schools across the Southern United States. Overwhelmed by the need the MEC formed the Freedman's Aid Society in 1866. Its primary mission was to support free public schools and train Negro teachers.[6] Under the auspices of the MEC, the former orphanage in Baldwin opened in 1875 as La Teche Seminary.[5][7] When William L. Gilbert, the owner of Gilbert Clock Factory in Winsted, Connecticut donated $10,000, plus a further $40,000 as an endowment[8] to La Teche, the school's name was changed to Gilbert Seminary in recognition of his gift. (Other sources report Gilbert's initial contribution as $50,000[7][9]). Over the next few decades, Gilbert Seminary became known variously as Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College,[5] Gilbert Academy and Industrial College,[7] Gilbert Normal and Industrial College[10] and Gilbert Normal Academy.[11]

Six years before La Teche Seminary began, Rev. John P. Newman, again with the help of the MEC, opened the Union Normal School on Camp and Race Streets in New Orleans. In 1873, Rev. Joseph C. Hartzell purchased property on St. Charles Avenue.[5] At the same time he obtained a charter to begin New Orleans University. Newman's Normal School moved to Hartzell's property on St. Charles and New Orleans University began operations.[5] Although Gilbert Academy remained in Baldwin,[7] it became an auxiliary school to New Orleans University.[11] The two schools formed an administrative merger in 1919,[10] with the two institutions remaining in their respective locations.[7] When New Orleans University and Straight College combined to form Dillard University at a new campus in Gentilly in 1935, Gilbert Academy moved into the buildings vacated by New Orleans University.[12]

Gilbert Academy band emblem, worn on the front of a blue sweater

Already known for high academic standards while in Baldwin, Gilbert Academy became the premier private, independent college preparatory school for African American students in New Orleans, the first in the nation accredited by the Southern Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges.[10]

Gilbert Academy Band circa 1947

Well before Gilbert Academy moved to its new home in Uptown New Orleans, as the area became known, the city was undergoing a transformation. Originally rural, improvements to the St. Charles Streetcar Line made the Uptown neighborhood more accessible and one of the most desirable places to live in the city. By the beginning of the 20th century, Uptown became more residential, segregated and expensive. In the 1910s, two African American universities in the Uptown area left or closed, their land purchased to build homes for the white population wanting to live there.[12] Issues on a more state-wide basis also beset private academies like Gilbert. Research published on Negro education in 1939 reported:

"At least four factors influenced the rapid decline of the schools, namely; (a) inadequacy of support;(b) consolidation with each other, and with public school systems; (c) perpetuation of a feud between publicly and privately supported education which hampered reconciliation, mentioned in b; and (d) the momentum given State-supported education with the reorganization of the State college and the inauguration of the Parish (County) Training School movement, which took place in Louisiana."[13]

During its long and distinguished history Gilbert Academy educated students who went on to become important national figures. Margaret Davis Bowen became the Academy's principal about 1935;[14] Marjorie Lee Brown was a mathematics teacher there for a short time; Joseph Henry Reason a language instructor. The school remained at 5318 St. Charles Ave until 1949, graduating its last class in June of that year.[9] A historical plaque stands on the property, placed there by alumni of Gilbert Academy in 1993.[12] It reads:

The site of Gilbert Academy
New Orleans University
Black educational institutions
Under the auspices of
The Methodist Church
1873 to 1949

Notable alumniEdit

Taken from Gilbert Made Lofty Contribution unless otherwise noted. [9]


  1. ^ a b Moran, Robert E. (March 1971). "The Negro dependent child in Louisiana 1800-1935". Social Service Review. 45 (1): 55. doi:10.1086/642646. S2CID 143286245.
  2. ^ a b Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. (1992). Notable Black American Women, Book 2. Gale. p. 174.
  3. ^ Leisenring, Richard (Jr) (Spring 2018). "Philanthropic photographs: Fundraising during and after the Civil War". Military Images. 36 (2): 46.
  4. ^ United States. National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives Trust Fund Board. (1987). "Records of the New Orleans Field Offices, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands 1865-1869" (PDF). National Archives Microfilm Publications in cooperation with The Historic New Orleans Collection. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 5 April 2021. Pamphlet describing M1483, p. 3 Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ a b c d e f Stowell, Jay S. (1922). Methodist adventures in Negro education. New York: Methodist Book Concern. pp. 111–114.
  6. ^ Crum, Mason (1951). The Negro in the Methodist Church. New York: Division of Education and Cultivation, Board of Missions and Church Extension, The Methodist Church. pp. 62–64.
  7. ^ a b c d e Bethea, Judith (April 2004). "Two remarkable African-American schools and the site they shared on St. Charles Avenue". Preservation in Print. 31 (3): 28–29.
  8. ^ Godman, W.D.; Godman, Inez A.; Godman, A.H. Dexter (1893). "Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College, Winsted, Louisiana: sketches and incidents; selections from journal". Hathi Trust Digital Library. New York: Printed by Hunt & Eaton. Retrieved 11 April 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d Elie, Lolis Eric (March 5, 2004). "Gilbert made lofty contribution". Times-Picayune.
  10. ^ a b c United States. Works Progress Administration of Louisiana; McKinney. "Description and history of Gilbert Academy". Louisiana Digital Library. Louisiana Works Progress Administration. p. 35. Retrieved 5 April 2021.
  11. ^ a b The Tiger. Senior Class of New Orleans University. 1928. p. 24.
  12. ^ a b c Campanella, Richard (February 2021). "Preservation's selective lens: the Gould House, Gilbert Academy and the legacy of New Orleans University". Preservation in Print: 10–12.
  13. ^ Gray, Wm. H. Jr. (October 1939). "The Growth and decline of private secondary schools in Louisiana". Journal of Negro Education. 8 (4): 701. doi:10.2307/2292911. JSTOR 2292911.
  14. ^ "Our Principal Returned". The Gilbert Tiger. Gilbert Academy. June 1947.
  15. ^ "Harold Battiste / Biography". The History Makers. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
  16. ^ "Yvonne V. Busch".