NEW ORLEANS (November 2, 2021) – After 152 years in existence, Dillard University stands as the “jewel of Gentilly” as it continues to emancipate through education and “uplifting the soul of man into the glorious light of truth,” according to Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, Louisiana’s poet laureate and DU endowed English professor.
Speaking at the Founder’s Day Convocation on Oct. 17 with seniors and their guests watching from The Oaks while others watched by live-stream, Saloy recalled historic names and events and shared other lesser-known stories of Dillard’s legacy.
“The HBCU promise to educate blacks was anticipated and echoed by Frederick Douglass, a promise that Dillard University has delivered for 152 years,” said the scholar of Creole culture. “Yeah, Dillard University is the emerald campus of the greater unique city of New Orleans.”
She invoked familiar names such as Dr. Albert Dent, Dillard’s president from 1941-69, who initially served as business administrator of Flint-Goodridge Hospital at Dillard and improved education and health care for blacks and the poor, and the name of his son, Tom Dent, a jazz scholar and playwright “essential to black arts” and for whom DU’s annual literary showcase is named.
But she also got into lesser-known facts, such as Dillard’s creation of the precursor to the hugely popular Jazz Festival and the important work of Marcus B. Christian, a Dillard staffer/folklorist/scholar who was instrumental in leading a team that chronicled the daily lives of black folk and quashed the “myth of happy slaves” for the federal Works Progress Administration, or WPA.
Christian, a poet who led the Dillard Writer’s Project, a black subgroup of the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, was hired at Dillard an assistant librarian. Saloy said the 1,200 pages of the manuscript for which he and team were responsible was “almost indistinguishable” from portions published under the name of the larger project’s white author, Lyle Saxon, who directed the Federal Writers’ Project WPA guide to Louisiana.
Saloy said Christian captured New Orleans’ “vibrant history” of its black culture, including truths about tolerance of intermarriage, race relations, uprisings, resistance, free blacks, the intelligence and psychology of voodoo and so much more.
Christian’s collection of writing is housed at the University of New Orleans.
Saloy quoted Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook, Dillard’s president from 1974-97, on the importance of being genuine, adding, “Dillard is genuine. Beneath all the partying, we are faithful.”
Saloy, a New Orleans native and an educator at Dillard for three decades, will serve as the state’s poet laureate through 2023. The author of two books earned a doctorate and master’s of fine arts from Louisiana State University and a master’s from San Francisco State University. Her bachelor’s degree is from the University of Washington.
Saloy’s book “Red Beans & Ricely Yours” won the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize and the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize in 2006. “Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems” was published in 2014.
Miss Dillard Dejoan Mitchell, a senior English major from St. Rose, introduced Saloy.
(Lawrence Raymond contributed to this report.)