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Keith Weldon Medley

Gilbert Academy’s Legacy of Distinction

Gilbert Academy’s Legacy of Distinction
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Published by New Orleans Tribune
November 1985

Gilbert Academy’s Legacy of Distinction


Keith Weldon Medley

Gilbert Academy, a private Black educational institution in uptown New Orleans, once stood on the site now occupied by De La Salle High School. Endowed with strong leadership, a progressive educational philosophy, and a commitment to excellence, Gilbert earned a national reputation as a school that continually produced high achievers. Its alumni include a former UN ambassador, an Olympic medalist, and award winning authors and musicians, and many other outstanding individuals. Gilbert Academy has been closed for almost 40 years. Still, its legacy lives on through the contributions of its graduates and their desire to keep Gilbert’s memory alive. Today Peck Hall remains the only surviving building of an institution that educated generations of African-Americans in New Orleans.

Gilbert originally started in 1870 near Franklin, La. as an agricultural and industrial college for recently emancipated Blacks that administered by the Methodist Church. In 1919, the school merged with New Orleans University and the name Gilbert Academy was given to the preparatory high school established on part of the institution’s uptown campus. When New Orleans University in 1935. Gilbert became heir to the entire school. Thereafter, it was administered by the Methodists as one of their 15 Black educational institutions in the South. With Dillard’s departure, Gilbert’s students became occupants of one of the most beautiful and well equipped high schools in the State. Situated on a four-acre site on St. Charles Avenue, the Academy’s grounds were adorned with large shady trees, well dept lawns, a football field, along with basketball, tennis, and volleyball courts. Also left behind by Dillard’s relocation were historic buildings and college level facilities. Facing St. Charles at the front of the campus was the Main Building. This three story structure was erected in 1886 and housed classrooms, laboratories, health clinics, and auditorium, and a 5000 volume library. The nearby stately Gould mansion was an antebellum home used by school officials. At the southern end of the site on Pitt St. was Peck Hall, the boarding home for out-of-town girls who attended the Academy. And on Valmont St. stood the residence of Mrs. Margaret Davis Bowen, the woman who provided Gilbert with its heartbeat and spirit.

A Civil Rights activist and educator, Mrs. Bowen brought sensitivity and direction to the school’s environment. She encouraged the faculty to take the extra steps needed to help students find their niche. Classes were kept small to allow for individualized instruction, and students learned at their own pace. Former Gilbert student Alois Demery Edwards remembered Mrs. Bowen as one who was “stern and fair.” “She wanted all of us to go to college and insisted we do our best,” said Ms. Edwards. Under Mrs. Bowen’s leadership, Gilbert used the late 1930’s to begin etching a distinct place for itself among educational institutions. At one point, the Academy was the only Louisiana school to hold an “A” rating from the Southern Association of Secondary Schools, and Dillard President Horace Bond Praised it as one of the best high schools in the country. The Academy listed its goals as preparing student for college, developing their entire personalities and providing a “New Education for a New Society.” By 1938, the school had an enrollment of 250. Many of Gilbert’s students were offspring of poor and working class parents who scraped together the monthly tuition to afford their children the opportunities that Gilbert offered.

The curriculum was exacting and diverse. There were three tracts-Commercial, General, and Home Economics. Each student was required to have three majors and two minor. A major was three years in a subject, and a minor was two years. In addition, all students took a course in Biblical Literature, and female students studied Home Economics. Also offered were courses in “Personality and Culture” and “Practical Problems of Youth Today.” Black History was listed as a permanent part of the curriculum.

Mrs. Bowen believed in bringing life to academia, and classroom studies were translated into series of contest and exhibits. For example, the school sponsored its annual Negro Achievement Contest which was won by student Camille McCann in 1938 for a paper on George Washington Carver. Also popular were the Math and Science exhibitions. At these, Gilbert students displayed projects ranging from home made telegraphs to geometric forms, such as parabolas and hyperbolas, embroidered on pillows or handkerchiefs, In one experiment to show the body was a safe conductor of electricity, physics student Willie Clayton used high frequency coils to safely send one- half million volts through a 500 watt bulb, then through a fellow student’s body and into a metal post.

Gilbert also had a fine music Department which gave piano or vocal lessons to any student who desired them. In addition to a band which held two concerts a year, the Music Department also trained Gilbert’s much sought after chorus, which spent many Sundays singing in the ward of Charity Hospital, and in both Black and white churches throughout New Orleans. The chorus also performed at the Chicago World’s fair in the middle 1930’s. Gilbert also hosted and acclaimed Dramatics department that staked frequent plays and produced an annual operetta. Many other activities were available. In addition to football and basketball teams, there was an intramural program, swimming, track, and the Letter Squad Pep Squad which performed at football games. Students also published their own newspaper, The Tiger. The May fair and Mardi Gras Ball were significant events on the school calendar, as was the Spring Fashion Show staged by the girls in Peck Home who modeled their original creations to parents and community.

The success of Gilbert’s mission became apparent during state rallies and other competitions. During the late w1930’s and early 1940’s, both the Band and the Chorus won first place prizes at the state rallies in Baton Rouge. The Drama Group also performed well, with students bringing home trophies in Voice, Interpretive Reading, Oration, and Speaking. The Drama Group also won first place for two tears at the Dillard University Drama Festival. Additionally, the football team under Coach Jesse Blakely reigned as the city champions in 1939. Gilbert students were sought by colleges across the country, and many became significant national and local figures. Former Gilbert students include past UN ambassador Andrew Young, Olympic medalist Audrey Patterson, and Margaret Walker Alexander who is the award-winning author of Jubilee and other novels. This list also includes Methodist Bishop Reverend W.T. Handy and Dr. Mitchell Spellman, the dean of Medical Services at Harvard University. Locally, Gilbert’s alumni include Civil Rights attorney Lolis Elie, Federal Judge Robert Collins, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and poet and author Tom Dent.

In 1948, Mrs. Bowen resigned as principal to move to Atlanta. Hundreds of well-wishers braved a rainstorm to attend a going away party for her at the Peck Hall reception room. There, a bust of Mrs.’ Bowen by sculptures Carrie Maxine Holtry was unveiled, and speeches were given which praised Mrs. Bowen for her positive impact on so many young lives. Mrs. Annabelle Dutton was named Gilbert’s nest principal, and the institution prepared itself for the challenges of a new era.

However, shack waves went through the Academy when the Methodist Board of Education announced it would no longer fund Gilbert after the 1949 school year. After an unsuccessful attempt by locals to raise operating funds for the school, Gilbert’s property on St. Charles was sold to the Archdiocese of New Orleans for $312,000. Ironically, the sale was funded with money from the Archdiocese’s Youth Improvement Program. In short order, following the transfer, the Main Building, the Gould Mansion, and other structures were razed and De La Salle was erected for use by white male high school students.

Gilbert’s last principal, Mrs. Annabelle Dutton, recalled what a sad time that was for the Gilbert family, “The school was such a special place. It had a family atmosphere where people were congenial and enthusiastic. We were able to take average students and bring out their best. There was never another school quite like Gilbert.”

Though the school is gone, its graduates have made efforts to keep its memory alive. In 1984, a reunion was held in the city, where former faculty and students reminisced, looked through scrapbooks, and presented awards to Mrs. Dutton and, posthumously, to Mrs. Bowen. The reunion was organized by Mrs. Jeanette McPherson Gates, former Gilbert Dramatics standout and a current writer and poet living in Oregon. Another reunion is planned in 1986, and discussions are underway to erect a monument to Gilbert’s memory and add to a collection of memorabilia stored in Dillard’s archives.

In the 1938 edition of the school’s Tiger newspaper, the editor sent the following message to a class of graduating seniors: “To those who are about to leave us we give our fondest wishes for untold success in that which is to come. We hope you will keep in the ‘attic of your house’ all the remembrances of bygone days at Gilbert Academy. Press on with perseverance and make the best that you can of yourself. We cannot earn a place in this world until we have shown ourselves worthy of one.”

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