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Flag, Confederate States of America
Shedding Light on Tulane History
“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
-- Winston Churchill

On May 21, 2004, Tulane University of Louisiana debuted a new 46-foot long stone wall in front of Gibson Hall on St. Charles Avenue bearing the name "Tulane University" in bronze letters 10-inches high. The new monument perpetuates the university's practice of misnaming itself by dropping reference to its relationship to the state. The university even avoids using its official name on tax returns by filing as "Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund." Nevertheless, payments it receives from government agencies are still made to "Tulane University of Louisiana," the name under which the university was chartered. Modification of its name is an example of the subtle misrepresentation Tulane employs to manipulate public opinion and justify benefits and privileges to which it otherwise might not be entitled. A reexamination of history sheds light on various misrepresentations.

Gibson Hall, built in 1894 and presently Tulane's administration building, is named in honor of Randall Lee Gibson, a plantation owner, Confederate general, and legislator who was primarily responsible for the founding of Tulane University of Louisiana. He was the first president of the Board of Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund, serving from 1882 until his death in 1892. Some circumstances of Gibson's life are especially worthy of note.

Gideon Gibson, the Great Grandfather

Genealogical records trace Randall Lee Gibson to African roots. Gideon Gibson, a mulatto, is the great grandfather of Randall Lee Gibson. He was born about 1730 in Virginia to a British subject of African origin (b. ca. 1695) who was a carpenter with the same name. In 1749, Gideon Gibson married a white woman, Mary Martha O'Connell, and resettled in the "backcountry" of South Carolina, where he distinguished himself as a farmer, builder, landowner, and community leader.

Gideon Gibson and Martha had nine children: six daughters followed by three sons. He eventually moved his entire family to Adams County, Mississippi, where he continued to prosper until his death in 1792. His last child, the Reverend Randall Gibson (1766-1836), is Randall Lee Gibson's grandfather.

Randall Lee Gibson's father, Tobias Gibson, was born in Adams County, Mississippi, about 1800 and later moved to Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana, where he purchased a large sugar plantation. The Terrebonne slave census of 1850 listed Tobias Gibson with 148 slaves, and by the census of 1860 that number had increased to 204. He served in the Louisiana State Legislature and in 1827 married Louisiana Breckenridge Hart, daughter of Colonel Nathaniel Hart of Kentucky, whose family was closely connected to the Clays, Prestons, and other prominent families. He died in 1872.

Randall Lee Gibson, Segregationist

Randall Lee Gibson (b. 1832) was educated with private tutors, graduated from Yale College in 1853, obtained a law degree from the University of Louisiana in 1855, and traveled abroad for three years before returning home to tend the family business.

At the outset of the Civil War, Gibson enlisted in the Confederate Army where he rose rapidly through the ranks to become a general. He commanded many bloody military campaigns before his final defeat and surrender in 1865 near Mobile, Alabama. Following the war, which financially ruined his plantation business, he established a law practice in New Orleans, entered politics, and eventually was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1875-83) and U.S. Senate (1883-92).

Gibson shared many of the segregationist views of the merchant and philanthropist Paul Tulane who sought him out in 1881, and as a member of Congress he had the political connections necessary to implement Paul Tulane's desire to create an institution in New Orleans for the education of "white young persons" embodying those views.

Working as Paul Tulane's agent, Gibson in 1881 began the task of assembling a group of prominent citizens that included bankers, lawyers, clergymen, judges, and businessmen whose goal was to convince the state legislature to permit them to take over the financially troubled University of Louisiana — Gibson's old alma mater in New Orleans — and place it under their control as a new educational institution, a venture justified by the financial donation made by Paul Tulane.

Thus was born the plan for the founding of Tulane University of Louisiana, an institution that would reflect for years to come many of the board's cherished Southern traditions.

In 1882, Gibson was declared the first president of the Board of Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund, and in 1883 Gibson named his cousin — his Yale roommate and fellow Confederate — Colonel William Preston Johnston to become the first president of the future new university. By 1884, the efforts of the Board of Administrators were rewarded with the passage of Louisiana Act 43 of 1884, which formally transferred the assets of the University of Louisiana to the new private board and recognized the renaming of the state institution to Tulane University of Louisiana.

The University of Louisiana was fully operational with buildings, a student body, a faculty, schools of medicine and law, and an academic department when it was taken over by the Board of Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund in 1884. Chartered by the state in 1847, the University of Louisiana was situated in the central business district of New Orleans, on University Place, a site now occupied by the Fairmont Hotel.

Tulane High School was one of the academic programs assumed by the Tulane board. In 1885, it recruited as the school's headmaster Ashley Davis Hurt, an instructor of Greek who had served in the Confederate Navy as a Captain's aide. After the high school was discontinued in 1894, Hurt continued to teach Greek at the university until his death in 1898.

Within 10 years of its acquisition, the board had leased the downtown property on which Tulane University of Louisiana was situated and moved its operations to its present location in the Uptown District of New Orleans, close to the neighborhoods occupied by the wealthiest citizens of the day. Gibson Hall, completed in 1894, was the first building on the uptown campus. A year earlier, the Richardson Memorial Building had been built downtown on Canal Street to house the medical school, whose proximity to Charity Hospital was needed for the training of medical students and interns.


Louisiana's Constitution of 1868 had extended public education to blacks and created a dilemma for opponents of desegregation who were indignant over the prospect of having to send their children to an institution of higher learning that was no longer the exclusive domain of whites. In New Orleans, the privatization of the University of Louisiana was seen as a solution.

In addition to establishing an integrated, free public school system, the Constitution of 1868 extended voting and other civil rights to black males and guaranteed blacks equal access to public accommodations. The Constitution actually owed its civil rights provisions to the advocacy of P. B. S. Pinchback, a mulatto who moved from Alabama to New Orleans in 1867, became active in Republican politics and, as a delegate to the constitutional convention, drafted the Constitution's civil rights article, Article 13. Pinchback soon was elected to the State Senate, and in December 1868 he became the state's lieutenant governor upon the death of Lieutenant Governor Oscar J. Dunn. Pinchback also became the first black to serve as governor of any state in the U. S. when he served as acting governor for under six weeks in 1872.

The great irony about "white" segregationist Randall Lee Gibson is that his own ancestors were free men of color. He and his father hid from and totally rejected their African ancestry for the sake of social, political, and economic mobility. Their actions affected countless members of their own ethnic ancestry for generations. Eighty years after Randall Lee Gibson and Paul Tulane first met, two young black students would sue Tulane University to gain admittance, and in 1961 the university would invoke Paul Tulane's stipulation that restricted the use of his endowment to "white young persons" and argue that, "...Tulane University would admit qualified students regardless of race or color if it were legally permissible to do so."

The denial, through privatization, of a quality education to blacks provides present day Tulane with a unique opportunity for reparations.

A Succession of Confederates

The Tulane board enjoyed the support of many state legislators and administrators of the University of Louisiana whose cooperation helped the privatization to succeed.  Those who favored privatizing the University of Louisiana were, like Tulane's first presidents, segregationists who had served in the Confederate Army and taken an oath to defend the tenets of the confederacy and the traditions of the old South.

The influence of segregationists left its mark on Tulane through the early university presidents and particularly the succession of board members who were confederates, many linked to one another through kinship, social, and/or business connections.  These interrelationships appear to have reinforced a legacy of intolerance and imperious behavior that continues to define the character of present day Tulane.  The lengthy period of service of many board members helps to explain the continuity of its thinking.

William Preston Johnston, first president of Tulane University of Louisiana (1884-1899), was a Colonel in the Confederate Army and a member of Confederate President Jefferson Davis' staff during the Civil War. He was captured with Jefferson Davis at the end of the war and imprisoned for several months. His father, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, died at the Battle of Shiloh.

William Preston Johnston's academic career began in 1866 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee, then president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, appointed him professor of history and English literature, a post he held for approximately 13 years. After Lee's death in 1870, Washington College was renamed Washington and Lee University.

In 1880, Johnston accepted the presidency of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. However, political infighting made that position difficult for him, and in 1883 he was grateful when his friend, Randall Lee Gibson, offered him the presidency of the future Tulane University of Louisiana in New Orleans. The two former Confederate Army officers had much in common, including acceptance of the segregationist conditions of Paul Tulane's endowment.

Johnston served as Tulane's president until his death in 1899, at which time William Oscar Rogers, an officer in the Confederate Army and a charter member of Tulane's board, was chosen to serve as Acting President of Tulane until a more permanent head could be appointed.  What followed was a series of presidents, usually from outside institutions, each contributing in his own unique way to shaping the form and substance of the university.

The greatest responsibility for defining the character of the institution rests with the Tulane board, the large and durable body that hires the president and to which he reports.  Board members have always been insiders, living in greater New Orleans and actively participating in policy making.  Even the president of the university did not, until recently, have a vote on board decisions.  Thus, it is the board's members and their relationship to one another and their ties to politicians, judges, law firms, and big business that is of primary significance.

Dyer (p. 172) tabulated the length of service of the 14 individuals who were members of the Board of Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund in 1913 and showed that they served an average of more than 29 years.  He concluded: “They were a self-perpetuating body and thus the new members who came on the board now and then usually conformed to the prevaling pattern of thought.”  The tenure of two members alone, Walter R. Stauffer and Charles Rosen, who each served 50 years on Tulane's board, spanned the period of 1882 to 1954.  According to Dufour (p. 20), “Until the Joe Jones era [Joseph Merrick Jones, a member and president of Tulane's board from 1947 to 1963], the basic philosophy of the Board of Administrators over many decades could well be embodied in the idea: Don't change the status quo.”  Joseph Merrick Jones did attempt to change the status quo and was killed in 1963.

Translation:Not for one's self, but for one's people.
Question:Who are Tulane's "people?"


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  • Mary G. McBride and Ann M. McLaurin, Randall Lee Gibson of Louisiana: Confederate General and New South Reformer, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2007, 320 pp.

  • "Frontline: April 25th Memo," The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/april25.html), accessed 12/01/04.

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  • Daniel J. Sharfstein, "The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White," The Penguin Press, London, 2011, 196 pp.

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