Museum sought for former historic black college site

For nearly 40 years, a sprawling, black Baptist college just off Groom Road thrived.

Leland College, founded in New Orleans in 1870 and relocated to Baker in 1923, was one of the first black colleges created after the Civil War. By 1960, though, the school was forced to close because of a lack of funding.

Today, a group of Louisiana Baptist ministers are hoping an African-American museum will jump-start a revitalization of the school’s campus for a host of new uses.

“I didn’t graduate from Leland College. I went to Southern. But I was here often at fraternity functions and sporting events. This place meant a lot to a lot of people back then, and it is an important place worth remembering,” said Jerry Cole, 85, chairman of the Leland College Board of Trustees.

The board is made up of Baptist ministers from around the state.

Cole, along with the Rev. René F. Brown, of Mount Zion First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge, and the Rev. Jesse B. Bilberry, of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church of Baton Rouge, recently stood in front of Leland College’s former campus on Groom Road and talked about creating a place where future Baptist preachers could be educated, children could attend camp and community members could gather.

“We want to do something for Leland College and keep the name and the legacy of Leland College intact. We would like to have a place one day for all five of the state’s Baptist conventions to meet. Just one place. We don’t have that now,” Brown said.

“There is so much potential here,” Bilberry said while looking out onto the 227 acres owned by the board of trustees.

Leland College’s New Orleans campus was destroyed by a hurricane in 1915. The school had planned to relocate to Alexandria, but those plans were abandoned, reportedly, because of a conflict with the white community.

The Christian school eventually reopened in Baker in November 1923 under the control of the American Baptist Home Mission Society.

Famous Leland graduates include Grambling football coaching legend Eddie Robinson, who played quarterback for the school, and East Baton Rouge Parish native the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, known nationally as the “dean of American black preachers.”

Either timing or luck or both brought Cole together with Baker historian Jean Byers, director of the Baker Heritage Museum.

“For a long time, I wanted to have an African-American Museum here, something that could be a real asset to the city, something everyone could be proud of,” Byers said.

Members of the Leland College Board of Trustees had money in their account from mineral lease sales in the 1980s and wound up constructing a $30,000 red brick building two decades ago. The Baptist group hoped the building would one day become a visitor center and provide a gateway for some future Leland College project.

That never happened and the building just sat, unused and empty for years.

“You can’t just have a building without any programming,” Brown said.

Cole and Bilberry said developers have been coming to the board for years with deals and plans for the acreage in hopes the board would sell.

But none of those proposals appealed to the board, Cole said.

“I like to tell people that one developer came to us with an idea to build a brewery out here. A brewery on Baptist land? I didn’t even bother telling the board about that one,” Cole said, laughing.

But Byers’ idea for a museum was the first to click for Cole and the rest of the board.

Byers and Cole now hope to transform the red brick building into a museum, which would only be the beginning.

Along with the museum, preliminary plans for the acreage include a youth camp, a distance learning program for Christian education and a retreat for Baptist ministers in Louisiana.

The board and Baker officials are hammering out a cooperative endeavor agreement that would allow the city to provide some in-kind services, including cutting grass on the property, in preparation for the opening of the museum, Byers said.

If the plan stays on course, there could be grand opening of the museum during Memorial Day weekend, Byers said.

Byers and Cole are asking the public whether they have any Leland College memorabilia they would consider donating to the museum. If so, contact Byers at (225) 774-1776.