Black History Month: Remembering Leland College
BAKER- Looking at old, tattered pages, Bessie Dixon Bridgewater was taken back to a time in her life nearly 80 years ago.
“I had to graduate by myself because cars weren't available at that time. We had a poor campus,” said Bridgewater.
Even at 94-years-old, she can still vividly remember the place where she went to high school.
“It was everything to me to graduate from Leland College campus high school in 1943," said Bridgewater.
Dr. Jerry Cole sits on the Leland College Board of Trustees, and he said, “Everything was of course segregated. They trained teachers and preachers.”
Originally founded in New Orleans in 1870 during Reconstruction by northern religious groups, Leland College was moved to the 230-acre property in Baker in 1923. The move was partially because of the work of the 4th District Missionary Baptist Association. Not much physically remains, but the memories are still here.
“Leland was one of the schools that made provisions for students from all over the state of Louisiana to come,” said Dr. Cole.
He continued, “this is for the most part before the public schools of Louisiana such as Southern and Grambling. Leland operated as a school of higher learning.”
The institution gave rise to prominent black leaders, such as Dr. Gardner Taylor and the late, great Eddie Robinson. Like the colleges in town today, it had an elementary and high school on the campus.
“I remember where the buildings were, where the dormitories were, where the faculty lived, faculty housing and all of that,” Representative Barbara Carpenter West.
Although she is now a state legislator, West attended kindergarten at Leland and lived on the campus with her parents.
“I spent a lot of time in the lab because my dad taught chemistry, and so I just remember having the run of the campus,” said West.
Her mom and dad were chemistry professors and Leland graduates. Her mom even reigned as Miss Leland in 1942.
“Many of the people who live right around the neighborhood now, went to school there at Leland even though it was a private school and there were not many public schools around so that's where people went to," said West.
That is exactly how Bessie Dixon Bridgewater ended up there. Her parents wanted her to get an education, and fortunately, her aunt worked in the Leland cafeteria.
“My aunt Miss Ida Radcliffe let me stay in a portion of her dining hall room,” said Bridgewater.
Living with her aunt at Leland was a good thing for the young, black girl in the deep south in the 1930's.
“She didn't play. She didn't play with me,” she remembered as she laughed.
Due to financial hardships, Leland closed in 1960.
“We did not provide the financial support that was needed to continue the operation of the school,” said Dr. Cole.
Today, the overgrown land still shows signs of future plans that once were in the making.
“This building was built with anticipation of reestablishing the development and activities at Leland," Dr. Cole finished.