A Baptist church association is pursuing ambitious plans to build a retreat and convention center in Baker at the site of the former Leland College, a historically significant black Baptist school that closed in 1960.
The land off Groom Road has sat mostly idle since the college’s closure, drawing numerous proposals over the years for development possibilities, including a museum, residential developments, shopping centers and even a brewery. None of those plans, however, aligned with the goals of the college’s board of trustees, which still owns and maintains the 227-acre site.
But in recent years, the Baton Rouge-based Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association has faced a shortage of space for events and educational programs, said the Rev. Jesse Bilberry, moderator of the association and pastor of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church.
The Leland College board has leased the association 30 acres of the former campus, preliminary plans that include an assembly hall, education and youth centers, a dining hall and a residential lodge. The development would also include a new headquarters building for the association, which currently operates from a smaller location on Prescott Road.
“We are hoping that this is something we can leave and [our children] can build on in years to come,” said Bilberry, who also is a member of the Leland College board. “It can grow into a convention center and retreat that attracts people from all over the country. But it’s got to be first class. When people come, they must want to come back again.”
When churches in the Fourth District, which includes six parishes in the Baton Rouge area, want to hold retreats or other events, they pay to use facilities at places like Southern University, Bilberry said. The Leland site would offer them a place of their own to use, he said.
Bilberry said the plans, which will go before the Fourth District’s board for approval later this month, have received positive responses so far. Trees and underbrush have been cleared off the land in recent weeks, and gates are now being installed.
“We’ve had a number of different kinds of proposals brought forth over time, but this is the most logical, most recent and agreeable proposal to be developed,” said Jerry Cole, a deacon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church who is president of the Leland board.
While the land may not become home to a school again, Cole said education is definitely the priority. The retreat center offers a chance to launch distance learning programs for ministers, he said.
“When I was a [high school] principal up in Tensas Parish, I had members on my faculty who graduated from Leland College, and they were all outstanding,” Bilberry said. “That is gone, and we are trying to restore this. … Eventually, hopefully, there will be an education facility here doing the things Leland College once upon a time did.”
Leland College opened in New Orleans in 1870 but moved to Baker in 1923 after sustaining damage in a hurricane, Cole said. Students there trained to be teachers and ministers.
Among Leland’s prominent alumni are the late Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, the “dean of black preachers” who was noted for his civil rights work, and legendary Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson Sr.
The campus also regularly played host to church-related events.
“It used to be, that was where it was — summer camp, youth encampment, all those kinds of activities used to be there,” Bilberry said. Though he attended Southern University, Bilberry, 86, remembers the days when bus loads of children went to events at Leland.
Like a number of religious schools in the 1950s and 1960s, however, the college struggled financially and ultimately shut down, Cole said. Some ministerial training programs continued to take place on the campus for a few more years after the closure.
The 13-member board of trustees, which besides Cole and Bilberry includes Leland graduates and graduates’ relatives, first attempted to revive the campus in the 1980s. Using money from mineral lease sales, the board constructed a small red brick building, hoping to spur further redevelopment, Cole said.
Nothing came of it, however, and the building has since been used only as meeting space for the Leland board and the Fourth District’s building committee.
Meanwhile, the unused property was swallowed up by weeds and trees, prompting concern that it would attract crime, said Chauna Banks-Daniel, the Metro Council member who represents the area.
Others worried that “some kind of toxic industry” would move in, she said. The surrounding area, known as the Leland College community, is mostly residential.
Banks-Daniel held a community meeting in May with residents and Cole. Some attendees suggested a mixed-used development with retail and residential areas and possibly a school.
“That area really is in need of an economic boost,” Banks-Daniel said, adding that many people wanted to build something to attract young families with children.
In 2014, an African-American museum was floated as idea for the historic college site, but Cole said the operation would cost too much. Though a dedicated museum facility is not part of the latest plans, a hall of fame-type space will be set aside to honor notable graduates and the history of the college, Cole said.
Bilberry is optimistic the redevelopment of the site will be a positive force in the community while carrying on the legacy of Leland College.
“We would not put anything on that property that would discredit what Leland stood for,” he said.