[Black History] A Brief History of Southern University

Southern University and A&M College had its beginning in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1880 when a group of Black politicians, led by former U.S. Senator P.B.S. Pinchback of New Orleans; a distinguished legislator, T.T. Allain of Iberville; and Henry Demas of St. John Parish petitioned the State Constitutional Convention to establish a school of higher learning for “colored” people. As a result of this petition, Southern University came into existence on April 10, 1880, by the passage of ACT 87 of the Louisiana General Assembly. This was the date on which funds were appropriated by the State of Louisiana for the establishment of an institution of higher learning for African Americans.

Act 87 provided for the establishment of a university for the education of persons of color. The Act further provided that the Board of Trustees should “establish a faculty of arts and letters, which shall be competent to instruct in every branch of liberal education; and, under rules of and in concurrence with the Board of Trustees, to graduate students and grant degrees pertaining to arts and letters on persons competent and deserving the same.” Under the provisions of Act 87 of the 1880 Louisiana General Assembly, Southern University first opened on March 7, 1881, in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Calliope Street. It remained there until 1883, when it was reorganized. It was later moved into a brick structure on Magazine and Soniat Street Square.

During this time, the University offered academic studies beginning with the primary grades and extending through high school, with some college-level work being offered. It also offered training in the job-oriented disciplines of agriculture, home economics, printing, carpentry, and tinsmithing. The academic program was classical in nature, offering such liberal art subjects such as English, Latin, Greek, French, Algebra, Geometry, Chemistry, Physics, and Music. The curriculum was divided into six departments: College, Normal, High School, Agriculture, Industrial Education, and Music.

The University remained in New Orleans until 1912, when Legislative Act 188 authorized its change of location from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The University was reopened on the new site on March 9, 1914, under the presidency of Dr. J.S. Clark.

In Baton Rouge, the University offered study from sixth grade through two years of college. The four areas of the college’s program were normal courses, home economics for women, vocational agriculture for men, and training for parish supervisors and agents. The Department of Industrial Arts offered, in addition to home economics and agriculture, such courses as carpentry, engineering, brickmasonry, blacksmithing, printing, shoemaking, and harness making. These courses were open to high school and college students. The academic dimension were classical in nature, offering such liberal arts subjects as English, Greek, French, algebra, geometry, chemistry, music, and physics. Latin was a requirement.

In the 1920s the University’s baccalaureate offerings were extended to four years. The University was developed into two colleges – the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education. The College of Education trained students to be teachers in academic subjects and industrial courses, including agriculture and home economics. The State School for the Blind and Deaf for Blacks, which was also under the supervision of Southern University, was separated into two schools – the School for the Blind and the School for the Deaf. In 1938, Dr. J.S. Clark was succeeded by his son, Dr. Felton G. Clark.

The divisional structure of the University remained in existence until the middle 1950s, when Business and Engineering were added. It was reorganized into the Colleges of Agriculture, Business Education, Engineering, and Liberal Arts and Sciences. In 1957, the Graduate School was established.

In the 1960s, the structure was again reorganized. The College of Arts and Sciences were divided to create the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Sciences. The Junior Division was established at that time. Dr. Felton G. Clark retired and was succeeded by Dr. G. Leon Netterville as president.

During the 1970s, the Southern University System, with its own management Board of Supervisors, was established. The System consists of Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College at Baton Rouge, Southern University Law Center, Southern University at New Orleans, Southern University at Shreveport, and the Agricultural Extension Program.

The University invested heavily in the accreditation of programs by specialized agencies. Several programs received accreditation for the first time, including business, computer science, mass communications, public administration, and rehabilitation counseling. Other programs received reaffirmation of accreditation. In the meantime, the athletics program was certified by the NCAA for the first time in 1996. Currently the University enjoys a high accreditation rate of 83 percent for all programs eligible for accreditation

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