Wilberforce University, one of the nation's oldest historically black colleges and universities, was founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856 on the site of Tarawa Springs, a former summer resort in Greene County, Ohio. The school, which had as its purpose the education of African Americans, was named for British abolitionist William Wilberforce; its first president was Richard S. Rust. From the outset, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church maintained Wilberforce University cooperatively, despite the earlier founding of an AME school, the Union Seminary, in Columbus, Ohio.
The exigencies of the Civil War led to dwindling funds, declining enrollments, and the closing of both Union Seminary and Wilberforce University. In 1863 the AME Church purchased Wilberforce University from the Methodist Episcopal Church for $10,000, sold the property of Union Seminary, and combined the faculty of the two institutions. The prime mover of the transformation, AME Bishop Daniel Payne, served as president from 1863 to 1873, the first African-American college president in the United States; Payne continued to be involved in Wilberforce's affairs until his death in 1893. Under Payne's direction, a theology department was established in 1866 (it became the autonomous Payne Theological Seminary in 1891). Payne, concerned with establishing Wilberforce as a serious academic institution, introduced classical and science departments the following year. Among the faculty members in its first decades was the classicist William Scarborough (1856–1926), born to slavery in Georgia, who was the author of a standard textbook for Greek, translator of Aristophanes, and president of Wilberforce from 1908 to 1920. Occasional lecturers included Alexander Crummell and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
In 1887 AME Bishop Benjamin W. Arnett, who was also a successful Ohio politician, convinced the state legislature
lature to establish a normal and industrial department at Wilberforce with its own campus, providing Wilberforce with unusual joint denominational and public supervision and sources of financial support. Shortly thereafter, from 1894 to 1896, W. E. B. Du Bois was an instructor at Wilberforce; he left in part because he was uncomfortable with the intense evangelical piety he found on the campus. Hallie Quinn Brown, a leader of the women's club movement and an 1873 graduate of Wilberforce, joined the faculty in 1893 as professor of elocution (i.e., public speaking), and remained on the faculty of the English department and the board of trustees for many years. The university library was named in her honor. In 1894 a military department was created under the leadership of Charles Young, one of the most distinguished African-American military officers.
In 1922 Wilberforce instituted a four-year degree program, and in 1939 it was formally accredited. A Wilber-force graduate, Horace Henderson, gained attention for his alma mater through a student jazz band, the Wilber-force Collegians, that he founded in the early 1920s and that went on to considerable national success. From 1942 to 1947 the historian Charles Wesley was president. In 1947 the former normal and industrial department was formally separated from Wilberforce as Wilberforce State College. Later renamed Central State University, it remains a predominantly black school, with an enrollment more than triple that of Wilberforce University.
The removal of state support for Wilberforce caused a financial crisis, a decline of enrollment, and a loss of accreditation. Under the leadership of Pembert E. Stokes, Wilberforce began to return to academic and financial health, and its accreditation was restored in 1960. In 1967 construction was begun on a new campus, a quarter mile from the old campus. In 1991 Wilberforce initiated a continuing education program for nontraditional students, Credentials for Leadership in Management and Business Education (CLIMB).
In 2002 Reverend Floyd Flake became president of the university. Financial problems continued to plague Wilberforce into the twenty-first century, and in 2003 faculty members agreed to take a pay cut and increase their workload.
See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; Bethune-Cookman College; Dillard University; Education in the United States; Fisk University; Howard University; Lincoln University; Morehouse College; Payne, Daniel Alexander; Spelman College; Tuskegee University
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of the Race.New York: Holt, 1993.
McGinnis, Frederick. A History of an Interpretation of Wilber-force University. Blanchester, Ohio: Brown Publishing, 1941.
Talbert, Horace. The Sons of Allen: Together with a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Wilberforce University. Xenia, Ohio: Al-dine Press, 1906.
valena randolph (1996)
jacqueline brown (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
Wilberforce University, at Wilberforce, Ohio, near Xenia; African Methodist Episcopal; coeducational; chartered and opened 1856. Wilberforce provided one of the first opportunities for African Americans to pursue advanced academic training. In 1863 it absorbed Union Seminary (est. 1847). The university adopted a cooperative education program in 1964, whereby its students alternate periods of academic and professional work.