by Pastor Brenda Billips Square

The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation Honors Straight University and Celebrates 10 Years of Educational Programming and Marking History

Since 2009, The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation has unveiled four markers across the city. The Foundation will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a  marker to officially recognize the site of the original Straight University

The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation is dedicated to teaching the history of the Plessy v. Ferguson case and marking New Orleans sacred spaces and civil rights sites.  To celebrate 10 years of marking New Orleans sacred spaces, civil rights sites and important moments in the struggle for racial justice, the Foundation will unveil a marker which officially recognizes the site of the original Straight University as a historic landmark by the state of Louisiana at 6 p.m. on June 7. 

The unveiling ceremony will take place at the corner of Esplanade and North Derbigny on the neutral ground directly across from 1631 Esplanade Avenue.  This marker honors an important moment in the history of New Orleans, remembers the ministry of the American Missionary Association, benefactor Seymour Straight, Dillard University and our early educators and community activist. 

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge John Howard Ferguson of the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case, along with author and historian Keith Weldon Medley, and archivist and Pastor Brenda Billips Square founded The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation on July 9, 2009. Today the Board includes Dr. Ron Bechet, Dr. Raynard Sanders, and Alexander Pierre Tureaud. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Foundation’s leaders were alarmed by the dismantling of the New Orleans public school system and the loss of many institutions, which embodied local history.  This concern led to the creation of the historic marker project to provide future generations with the history of New Orleans and the long struggle for freedom, justice and equity. 

Additionally, the Foundation develops intergenerational public programs that bring discussion, debate and understanding to New Orleans role in shaping the national struggle for civil rights and identifies historic sites, which have not been recognized by the State of Louisiana.

In the words of Charles Shelby Rooks, the former executive vice president of the UCC’s Board for Homeland Ministries, “The story of Black America is a fantastic human story.  It should be retold over and over again – for ourselves, for our children and for our children’s children.” 

The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation is seeding hope for future historians, educators and advocates who will continue the work of telling the story because we who believe in freedom cannot rest. 

Education for Liberation

Education for liberation was the central focus of African Americans moving from slavery to freedom.  Education for liberation remains a goal for local families as New Orleans leads the nation in creating Charter schools – just as Louisiana lead in ushering in Jim Crow with the Separate Car Act of 1890.   A careful study of the history of public education in New Orleans proves that, despite stories of widespread failure, archival records, salvaged artifacts, and community memory document a legacy of sustained resistance to racial injustice, and notable African American achievement which can be traced directly to the pioneering ministry and training provided at Straight University.  Indeed, the story of Straight University is significant not only to Dillard University, but it represents an important introductory chapter in the history of African American liberation because Homer Plessy and the New Orleans Citizens Committee orchestrated the first court challenge to dismantle Jim Crow. Alexander Pierre Tureaud Sr. continued the advocacy of Martinet and the Citizens Committee and helped Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys with the Brown v. Board case which overturned Plessy v Ferguson and ushered in the desegregation of McDonogh 19 and William Franz, (the first public elementary schools desegregated in America’s Deep South).

Many of the names of New Orleans early education leaders, civil rights activists and educators can be traced to Straight University, which merged with New Orleans University to form Dillard in 1930. The history of Straight can be traced to a long freedom struggle that began in 1839 on a ship named La Amistad. The revolt of 53 kidnapped Africans ended with the captives standing trial in a Connecticut court for mutiny and murder.  Their imprisonment and three-year court battle united a growing national anti-slavery movement and ushered in a new movement to build public schools and colleges for Blacks in the American south.   When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Africans were free in U.S. v Amistad 40 U.S. 518 (1841), abolitionists worked together to secure the return of the captives to their homes in Sierra Leone.  In 1846 the Amistad Defense Committee joined with the largely African American Union Missionary Society and others to form the interracial American Missionary Association (AMA).  Guided by a social gospel and antislavery activism, the AMA commissioned thousands of teachers and ministers who established over 5000 schools and anti-slavery churches in the south during and after the Civil War.  

In New Orleans, the AMA established Straight University in 1869 at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and North Derbigny Street.  With departments of Law, Theology, and a Medical School, Straight provided a foundation for African American education and civil rights activism leaving a treasure trove of documents and a history of sustained resistance to racial injustice.    The AMA also sponsored Central, Howard, Morris Brown, Spain Street, and the Beecher Memorial Congregational churches. Of these churches, only Beecher Memorial remains a predominately African American congregation, now affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC). Following Katrina, Central Congregational merged with St. Matthew UCC to form Central St. Matthew UCC. These churches along with the now closed Valena C. Jones School and Dillard University can trace their roots directly to the American Missionary Association and Straight University.

The 1901-02 Straight University Catalog listed Alfred Lawless, Jr. A.B., Class of 1902, Thibodaux, Louisiana at 1015 Spain Street, New Orleans.   It also included Laforest A. Planving, B.S. Principal, Point Coupee Industrial and High School, of Oscar, Louisiana, Class of 1899 and Henderson H. Dunn, A.B. Pastor Howard Congregational Church, New Orleans, Class of 1900.

A Decade of Marking Sacred Spaces and Civil Rights Sites

Since 2009, The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation has unveiled four markers across the city. The total cost of each marker is $3,000 and is paid for by citizen contributions and partnering organizations and institutions.

Other historic sites across New Orleans that the Foundation has marked include:

• Plaque No. 1 February 12, 2009 

Homer Plessy and New Orleans Citizen’s Committee at

the site of the 1892 arrest of Homer

Plessy for challenging Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of

1890 – corner of Press & Royal Street

• Plaque No. 2 – November 14, 2010 

McDonogh 19 School, one of the first public

elementary schools desegregated in the American

South on Nov. 14, 1960

• Plaque No. 3 – November 14, 2015 

Fannie C. Williams – Pioneer in public education 

Valena C. Jones Elementary School, organized by Rev. Alfred Lawless in 1904 at Beecher Memorial

Congregational Church with support from the American Missionary Association

• Plaque No. 4 – April 6, 2017 

Smith W. Green, the Grand Lodge Knights of Pythias

of Louisiana.

Pastor Brenda Billips Square is Co-Founder and Director of Historic Marker Projects for the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation & Co-Pastor of Beecher Memorial Congregational UCC.

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