Xavier University of Louisiana

views updated


Founded in New Orleans by St. Katharine drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (S.B.S.), Xavier University of Louisiana is the first and only historically black and Roman Catholic school of higher learning in North America.

In 1915, at the request of local black Catholics and the Most Rev. James H. Blenk, Archbishop of New Orleans, Mother Katherine opened high school classes for black youth in the buildings of the old Southern University, a Louisiana state institution that had moved elsewhere. Under Catholic auspices, Xavier was open to students of all religious backgrounds. The school was given special permission by Catholic church officials to operate on a co-educational basis, making it among the earlier such Catholic institutions in the United States. In 1917, a teacher-training department was added and, in 1918, the school began awarding two-year post-secondary commercial, music, and industrial degrees.

In 1925, the full four-year undergraduate program was introduced, leading to the Bachelor of Arts, the Bachelor of Arts in Education, and the Bachelor of Science. There was also was a two-year Pre-Medical Course. With money from Mother Katharine's sister Louise Drexel Morrell, an annex was added. In 1927, a College of Pharmacy was opened. Mother Katharine and local African-American leaders founded a historical association to raise money to buy rare books and manuscripts about black history and culture for the university library. The first president of the college was the Reverend Edward J. Brunner, S.S.J., who in a consultative capacity, followed as President by Mother Agatha Ryan, a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament (S.B.S.).

In 1929, a program to enlarge the campus was implemented. The first buildings completed were a stadium (1930), the Administration Building (1932), a library (1937), and a gymnasium (1938). During the 1930s, a separate Negro History Department combined courses in history, literature, and social studies teaching methods, making it one of the first college-level programs in African-American Studies. At the same time, the Graduate School was inaugurated, conferring Master's degrees in education, science, history, English, and French.

In 1934, Xavier inaugurated a School of Social Service for training social workers and an opera program, which eventually produced singers who had major careers in Europe and America. The same year also witnessed Xavier's awarding of its first honorary degree, a Master of Arts, to the African-American sculptor Richmond Barthé. During the 1930s and 1940s, the College

ran an extension school for education majors in Lake Charles, Louisiana, that provided a large proportion of the teachers who staffed small black Catholic parochial schools in the Acadiana region of the state. Because of a shortage of priests and nuns, Xavier graduates ran the schools solely with lay people.

After World War II, the school constructed wood-frame men's and women's dorms and an Industrial Arts Education building. The number of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at Xavier reached their all-time high. Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board Education (1954), the school's charter was amended to permit non-black students. Previously, Xavier's affiliation with The Catholic University of America had enabled white nuns to attend afternoon classes at Xavier from the 1920s to 1956.

The death of Mother Katherine on March 3, 1955 marked a turning point in the university's history. The university could no longer draw upon Mother Katherine's inheritance from her father Francis Anthony Drexel. Under the terms of the bequest, the proceeds could be used only during her and her sisters' lifetimes.

The 1960s brought great change. Except for basketball and track and field, most of the intercollegiate athletic programs were ended in 1960 and the home economics and industrial arts programs in 1962. The Student Center (1962) and St. Joseph's Residence Hall for women (October 1965) were erected. During the high point of the modern Civil Rights Movement, when the Freedom Riders passed through New Orleans and had a hard time finding places to stay, Xavier University put them up. With the decline in enrollment of postwar veterans, the loss of Mother Katharine's income, the opening of two public colleges in New Orleans, and the recruitment of African Americans by formerly white-segregated colleges, only 775 students signed up for the 1963 to 1964 school year. The decision of Loyola University of New Orleans, a Jesuit institution, to close its pharmacy program in 1965 enhanced significantly Xavier's program and its non-black enrollment.

In 1965, Sr. Maris Stella Ross, S.B.S. became president. Sparked principally by the devastating impact of Hurricane Betsy in the same year, an expansion program was announced. In 1969, construction was completed on Katharine Drexel Residence Hall for women, the Blessed Sacrament House of Studies for women religious attending Xavier, the Central Plant, a new cafeteria wing for the Student Center, and the College of Pharmacy Building. Until 1966, Xavier had no separate existence apart from the S.B.S. Corporation of Louisiana. In 1966, the order reconstituted the University as a separate corporation and transferred all the real property to it. Norman C. Francis, a Xavier alumnus, became the first lay person and the first black person to be president of the university on June 26, 1968. He also became one of the earliest lay presidents of any Catholic college in America.

The 1970s and 1980s marked a comeback for the school. By the mid-1970s, the school was receiving major grants from federal agencies and private foundations. Enrollment was on the rise. The school developed further pre-medical and other science programs that brought new funds and better recruitment of students. By the mid-1980s, more than half of the enrollment of 2,000 consisted of science majors, a number of whom are preparing for medical school.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Xavier University offered 42 undergraduate major areas. The Institute for Black Catholic Studies, founded in 1980, grants the Master of Theology, and the College of Pharmacy grants a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Of the total enrollment of 3,797 students, 72 percent were women. Black (non-Hispanic) students comprised nearly 89 percent, 5 percent white (non-Hispanic), and 6 percent Asian American and other. Asian Americans and Louisiana Creoles represented the only predominantly Roman Catholic part of the student body, with more than two-thirds of the other students being Protestant. About half of the students now come from outside Louisiana. Recipients of degrees have been largely teachers, medical doctors, and pharmacists, although Xavier's influence has been felt also in religious life, science, jurisprudence, social service, civil rights, and government. The full-time faculty number more than 200.

[l. sullivan]