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Tue, 08.26.1873

The Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College Opens

*The Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College is celebrated on this date in 1873. Located at Baldwin, Louisiana, it was associated with New Orleans College serving as a preparatory school and feeder to the college and as an agricultural and industrial branch.

The story of the institution is unique. It grew out of a movement before the American Civil War to care for and educate the orphans of colored Union soldiers. General N. P. Banks initiated the movement in 1863 by providing for gathering these neglected children in the city of New Orleans. Before then, they had often become scattered and lost; some had been found dead by the roadside, famished while their mothers looked for work. Soon after this work started, a Frenchman who chanced to be in New Orleans visited the Marine Hospital where the children were established.

He offered to give ten thousand dollars to purchase a farm home for the orphans on the condition that twenty thousand more should be raised to supplement his gift. Dr. John P. Newman took an active part in securing the needed money, and a large sugar plantation, which the sheriff was now selling, was purchased and became the Orphans' Home. The plan was to make the institution self-supporting from the proceeds of the sugar industry. However, the premature withdrawal of public funds from the institution's support, an explosion that wrecked the sugar house, and other contributory causes jeopardized the institution.

In 1874, it became necessary to place many orphans in private homes for care. At this juncture, it chanced that Mrs. W. D. Godman of Berea, Ohio, was stopping at the institution. During her stay, she employed a colored laundress. One evening when this black woman returned with the clothes, she also brought a carefully wrapped bundle. She seemed to have something which she very much wanted to say, and at last, she unwrapped her bundle to reveal a large old Bible and hesitatingly pleaded, "Please, would you teach me just one verse from God's word?"

The appeal was too direct to be resisted, and before the older woman left that night, she read a verse from the New Testament. This led as the days passed to other verses. Other Negro women came, and night after night, they sat in an old building with a dim light and a boy stationed close at hand to kill any approaching snakes and labored that they might learn to read.

The Freedmen's Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church provided orphans with teachers. It was, however, the beginning of interest for Mrs. Godman and her husband. He was then president of Baldwin University in Berea, Ohio, which brought them permanently to the Southland and led them to give many years of devoted and effective service to blacks of Louisiana. Under their leadership, La Teche Seminary was opened on the plantation in April 1875.

The school's name was later changed to Gilbert Seminary in honor of the Hon. W. L. Gilbert of Winsted, Connecticut, gave generously to the school. Still, later Gilbert Seminary became Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College. The school has been connected to New Orleans College, moved to New Orleans, and combined with the college. The Woman's Home Missionary Society has taken charge of the orphanage work, which will continue this work on the Baldwin site. The Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College closed in 1949.

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