Few people would regard the late Governor Earl K. Long as a major figure in the preservation of New Orleans culture but because the North Louisiana politician was bound and determined to put a public college in the hometown of his perennial gadfly, New Orleans Mayor Delesseps S. Morrison, “Uncle Earl” created what we know today as UNO, the University of New Orleans.
In 1958, Homer Hitt, a sociology professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, was given the task of setting up a satellite campus on an old naval air station by Lake Pontchartrain. Within nine months, Hitt had hired a staff, assembled a faculty of 63 hardy academics and opened a new school with 1,500 students – both black and white. LSUNO (Louisiana State University in New Orleans) as it was then called, was the first university in the state to be fully racially integrated from the day of its opening.
In the early years, the students and the faculty struggled to invent the school, to get an education and to cope with the limitations – and the attractions – that a public university in an exciting and quirky city afforded. It was an adventure.
“It was like the set of South Pacific, and I was Nellie Forbush,” Carolyn Wilenzick Levy remembers. The World War II-era airstrip and military-style buildings in the deserted landscape on the lakefront were reminiscent of a musical comedy set, if you were in a theatrical frame of mind. ”Homer Hitt called us the pioneers,” she says, even though she arrived in the second semester of the second year of the school.
“I was at LSU in Baton Rouge my first semester, I found it completely anti-intellectual and thought I would just transfer back to this school at home until I could get my daddy to send me somewhere I wanted to go,” Levy explains. “And I came there, to LSUNO, and fell in love with it and never left.”
“The French Quarter was part of our campus, too,” she recalls, and there were lots of kindred spirits. “Henri Schindler was the first friend I made – I had a job in the language laboratory and this boy came in every day with a sign that said how many days [were left] until the Academy Awards. He held his own private awards, the ‘Schin’ awards. He gave prizes to films he liked that year,” Levy says.
LSUNO students were often passionately involved in their community. “My first year and a half or so I spent fighting to keep the streetcars on Canal Street.” Jack Stewart says. “You had to be interested in something other than the campus – there was no ‘there’ there.”
Stewart arrived in 1963 and ended up earning Bachelor’s (Sociology), Master’s (Urban Studies) and Doctoral (Political Science) degrees at the school. “Sometime after my first degree they changed the name to UNO, so at least I don’t have all three degrees from the same place.”
Stewart came to the campus from his Uptown home on Freret Street and, like most LSUNO students, he commuted by bus. “There were two ways to get there,” he explains. “One was to take the Freret [Street] bus downtown and get off at St. Charles [Avenue] and Canal [Street], and walk to Decatur [Street] to get the Elysian Fields [Avenue] bus; the other was take the Nashville [Avenue] express to Fontainebleau [Drive] to catch the Broad [Street] bus to Elysian Fields. If you made good connections that saved half the time.” Carolyn Levy also remembered the bus ride fondly. “That’s when I got to know the parts of the city I never knew. I loved that Elysian Fields bus – it went from the river to the lake. I got to see people and neighborhoods I had never seen before.”
Stewart also remembers that he could do homework on the bus going to class. “You could handle more motion sickness then, cause you were half awake.” And it was a tough school schedule. “At least several semesters I had an 8 o’clock class six days a week. Some of the times you’d have to stay from 8 in the morning until 9 o’clock at night if they didn’t offer the class in the day. You’d have to pack lunch and dinner.”
Affordability was one reason to choose UNO. Beginning tuition was in the range of $25 a semester. “The tuition and the fact that it was integrated – that convinced my parents,” Raphael Cassimere recalls. “My two sisters graduated from college that year.”
Cassimere had gone to J.S. Clark High School. “At that time it was the only public high school for blacks on the east side of Canal Street – Carver opened after I finished.” LSUNO was a good option if you were college-bound. “I think about 45 students from my high school went to LSUNO,” he says. Cassimere would go on to earn a Master’s in History at UNO and his doctorate at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He returned to UNO to teach and is still on the faculty.
LSUNO wasn’t an easy school. Out of the students from Cassimere’s high school who entered, “not many were there for the second semester, maybe a dozen. The flunk-out rate was maybe 60 percent the first semester,” he says. “For those of us who managed to stay – we kind of felt special.” Carolyn Levy remembers “in the fall you couldn’t find a parking space – in the spring you could park anywhere.”
UNO was academically rigorous and the effort paid off. When Cassimere went away to graduate school, “I didn’t find the other students any better than me and some were not as good,” More importantly, UNO “was fun. You learned that in a sense this was the best part of your life.” He continues, “I was very actively involved in civil rights. To some extent what was happening at UNO, in my history classes and political science classes, prepared me for a leadership role.”
Involvement in the community and the city’s culture would continue for the school’s alumni. “I still see a lot of friends I made there,” Jack Stewart says. “Dennis Dannell is now a traffic court judge. His brother is the chef at Louisiana Products, next door to me on Julia Street.”
In fact, the phenomenon of Stewart’s musical platform of choice, The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra, has many ties to his student days on the lakefront campus. “Justin Winston, who started digging up the music; Melanie Owen whose family members had written some of the music; George Schmidt; and Chris Moe who did the costume design … I met them all at UNO.” Stewart also notes that the late Joseph Logsdon, longtime UNO history professor, was one of the originators of the Jazz Colloquium held annually at French Quarter Festival.
Luckily for the city, the public university has made itself a part of the community, sometimes in a wrenching way. Cassimere notes of his old high school classmates “one of my friends mentioned how disappointed my friends were that I wasn’t with them at Dillard. Others felt, if you can make it at UNO, you must be pretty good!” Cassimere admits proudly.