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Opelousas Firsts – St. Joseph Industrial College

CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Contributing Writer

As we continue to celebrate February as Black History Month, here is some information about an early Opelousas college. The first college for Blacks in Opelousas was St. Joseph’s Industrial College, also called St. Joseph College and St. Joseph Industrial School, established with help from Father J. Engberink, pastor of St. Landry Catholic Church, and St. Katharine Drexel. The college enrolled 88 students, all young men, for the 1911-12 school year.  Leonard Dwight “L. D.” Lang, a graduate of St. Joseph College at Montgomery, Alabama and a close associate of the noted educator Booker T. Washington, was the director of the College.[1]  

“L. D.”, as he was usually called, was born in Key West, Florida in 1888 to parents of West Indian descent. His father, Joseph Lang, was a cigar maker and was employed by the Custom House at Key West. Lang joined the faculty of the St. Joseph College at Montgomery, AL after graduating and became prefect in 1908. While at the College, he became acquainted with both Saint Katharine Drexel, great benefactress of Black and Indian missions, and with Professor Booker T. Washington, founder of the great Tuskegee Institute.

In 1911, Professor L. D. Lang moved to Opelousas and helped to open Saint Joseph’s Industrial College. The college building was constructed for a cost of $5,000 on property purchased by Saint Katharine from members of the Donatto family. In April 1914, Archbishop James Blenk of New Orleans traveled to Opelousas to dedicate the building constructed to house the school. 

L. D. Lang was also very involved in the Opelousas community. He was the driving force in organizing the Father John Council No. 8 of the Knights of Peter Claver in 1912. He served as the Grand Knight of that council from 1912-1914 and again from 1918-1919.

Lang’s early partner in conducting St. Joseph Industrial College was Opelousas native Benjamin Dewey Donatto (1898-1979), the son of Mary L. (1875-1954) and Benjamin Donatto (1865-1944). He taught at the school where he was prefect of discipline and also the manager of the St. Joseph Baseball Club. Dr. Donatto later became a successful Opelousas and Alexandria Dentist.

Professor Lang encouraged the older students to help instruct the younger boys. The St. Joseph Industrial College, or School, continued until 1920 when Father James A. Hyland (1886-1953), the pastor of the newly erected Holy Ghost Catholic Parish, combined the existing St. Joseph School and the St. Joseph College into one parochial school that would later become Holy Ghost Catholic School. L. D. Lang moved to Natchez, Mississippi where he spent the rest of his life. 

Among the more well-known former pupils of the St. Joseph Industrial College were Father Carmen George Chachere, S.V.D. and Father Earl Lawrence Chachere, M.S.S.T., brothers, and descendants of two of Saint Landry Parish’s earliest families.[2]


[1] The History of the Catholic Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, (1915), Reverend Father Engberink.

[2] From Creolegen, posted on the world wide web on August 5, 2012.