July 1, 2006

Historic black New Orleans college reclaims campus

By Peter Henderson

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - One of New Orleans' historic black
colleges reclaimed its campus from Hurricane Katrina on
Saturday in a graduation ceremony at which comedian Bill Cosby
urged listeners to take better care of "God's garden."

The recovery of Dillard University is one of the bright
spots in a city still covered with open wounds from the storm
last year, which killed more than 1,500 from Louisiana.

Dillard students were forced all over the map by the
closure of their school, and each of about 350 graduates
marched in carrying a flag thanking another university for
taking in an evacuee.

The dean of American comedy filed in with the seniors down
an alley of stately oaks, which survived the storm, across
newly planted grass, to stop in front of a columned hall that
was surrounded by eight feet of dirty flood water last August.

Cosby tickled the stomach of a surprised television
cameraman, pretended to lasciviously hug the mother of the
valedictorian, and shrugged off his robes, skinning down to a
T-shirt, when the New Orleans summer morning began heating up.

Campus buildings have been painted white, and with more
interior work will reopen to students in the fall. But the
hurricane nearly destroyed Dillard, like most of New Orleans,
and Cosby was serious when he finally addressed the group.

"It's not the first time devastation ever hit, according to
the Bible, according to history. Some of it is made by nature,
and a great deal of it is made by human beings," Cosby said,
calling on graduates to take care of the post-Katrina world.

"Look at this event as you sit to leave as an important,
prophetic event," he said. "This is God's garden, and you are
in charge of it."

Historically black colleges and universities were
established to serve African-Americans at a time when few
schools were integrated or welcoming. The 137-year-old Dillard
was founded shortly after the U.S. Civil War ended.

On Saturday, many students walked through campus for the
first time since just before Katrina hit, when the university
packed up in buses and headed to Centenary College in
Shreveport, Louisiana.

"It was horrible," said Jonita Daniels, 24, a senior
describing the chaos. But she found a home at Southern
Mississippi University and has found the graduation to be like
a reunion.

Many lowerclassmen and women returned to New Orleans in
January, when the university set up a temporary campus at a
Hilton hotel and donors sent money for scholarships.

"At first I thought it was good we were going to be at the
hotel," said Veronica Sumner, 19, who will be a junior next
year. "But the food wasn't good. Now I just want to be on our
own campus," she said.