Around 1992-1994, I wrote an article and created a series of infrared black-and-white images for the Newcomb College alumni publication, “Under the Oaks.” It was a fun piece to work on and a study in New Orleans history. The Tulane Department of Communications, who designed and produced the publication, had to get special permission from Newcomb leadership to run the article because they hadn’t had male contributors to the all Women’s College publication previously.
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, I visited several university campuses specifically to photograph or rephotograph old oaks while the grounds were empty of students and faculty. For this post, I’ve mixed a few of the images I made in 1993 with others I made during the summer of 2020, during the pandemic lockdown while the Newcomb campus was empty.
It’s a little known fact that the Newcomb oaks are closely tied to the history of this famous women’s college in New Orleans. They’ve played a unique role in creating the environment for campus life for almost a century. In 1918, Newcomb College moved from its original location on Washington Avenue to the current campus on Broadway Street, next to Tulane University. As part of the moving ceremonies, women students carried acorns gathered from the oak trees at the original Washington Avenue campus and transplanted them at the new campus site. Those acorns today have grown into the century-old oaks lining the campus quadrangle and sheltering walkways and buildings on campus.
A Brief History of Newcomb College—In 1886, Josephine Louise Newcomb made an initial gift of $100,000 (worth roughly $2.7 million today) to the Tulane Board of Administrators in memory of her daughter, Harriott Sophie Newcomb, who died at the age of fifteen. Over the years, she made other monetary gifts to the school totaling almost 3-million dollars. Newcomb College opened its doors in 1887, offering young women a classical curriculum combined with an innovative art school, with a unique philosophy to train women to be self-supporting in the post-Civil War Southern economy.
Newcomb College is probably best known for its art school, where in its early years the women students created artworks that reflected an interest in craft and their parents’ desire for their daughters to learn practical, marketable skills. From this direction emerged a line or brand of pottery, recognized worldwide and highly collectable today. The Newcomb art curriculum and the utilitarian philosophy underlying it, was unique among art programs and women’s colleges of the time and it developed to be a leader in the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Fine art as well as a variety of crafts were taught, yet it was the pottery program that earned the college an international reputation by the early 1900sC
From the Newcomb art museum website: Newcomb Pottery is considered one of the most significant American art potteries of the first half of the twentieth century. Influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement, Newcomb pottery was exhibited around the world, sold in shops on both coasts, and written about in art journals throughout the United States and Europe. Newcomb potters (always men) and designers (always women) were awarded eight medals at international exhibitions before 1916.) The Newcomb pottery program produced more than 70,000 pieces before it closed in 1939.
After Hurricane Katrina, Newcomb College and its curriculum were restructured, and the old Sophie Newcomb College closed. As part of Tulane University’s Renewal Plan following the major losses and damage of Hurricane Katrina, Newcomb became a co-educational, single undergraduate college called Newcomb-Tulane College. The new college is now more of an extension of the Tulane University System.
Heirs of Mrs. Newcomb sued against this change, challenging Tulane on the issue of donor intent and seeking to preserve Newcomb as a separate coordinate college within the university, but the lawsuit ended in 2011 after an appellate court declined to rule on the case.
In 2006, the Newcomb College Institute was formed as an umbrella organization that runs programs (for women) that were formerly operated by the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College. In its first year (2006–07), under the leadership of founding Interim Executive Director Rebecca Mark (Tulane Department of English), the non-academic Newcomb College Institute hosted 104 speakers and 110 different programs for women, men, and guests at Tulane. Today, under the directorship of Sally J. Kenny, the Newcomb Institute strives to continue the goals of the original H. Sophie Newcomb College—”to promote the development of students’ leadership skills, preparing them to advocate for gender equity and lead in a gendered world.”