This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
The stone gates guarding the old entrances to Johnson C. Smith University are fitting monuments to mark both the revitalization of that institution through the benefaction of Mrs. Johnson C. Smith and the changing of its name to honor the memory of her husband. Built in 1923 as part of a rigorous construction program funded by Mrs. Smith, the gates stand as a symbol of the commitment to the school to be one of the best black colleges in the country by Mrs. Smith, the Presbyterian church, and local leaders.
Johnson C. Smith University was started in 1867 by the Committee of Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church, USA as a school to train young black men to become teachers and preachers in the South. Through the gifts of Mrs. Mary D. Biddle of Philadelphia, the school was able to move to eight acres of land donated by William R. Myers, and in 1869, Biddle Memorial Institute opened just north of the city. It was named in honor of Mrs. Biddle's husband, Major Henry J. Biddle, who had fallen in the recent war. Under the direction of Dr. Stephen Mattoon, (1815-1886), who began his tenure in 1870, Biddle was solidly established as one of the leading black colleges in the nation, and it also became an influential part of the City of Charlotte. The school has not only provided the education for many black professionals, but the institutions administrators and staff have played a significant role in the community and the community of Biddleville, which became connected to the city center by streetcar in 1903, grew up around it.
Despite a disastrous fire in 1878, the school prospered. In 1912, a fine new library building was dedicated which was built from a grant by Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist. Another fire of 1921 which destroyed the theologies dormitory, kitchen and dining room put the continued existence of Biddle (chartered by the state as a university in 1876) very much in doubt because of the great amount of money needed to rebuild. Through the Presbyterian Board of Missions, Mrs. Mary Jane Smith of Pittsburgh, PA, learned of the schools plight, and during the academic year 1921-1922 pledged about $200,000 to build a new theological dormitory, a science building, a teacher's cottage, a dining hall, and a memorial gate to honor the memory of her late husband, Johnson C. Smith. Because of her gift, the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church changed the name of the institution to Johnson C. Smith University in 1922, a change which was legalized by an amendment to its state charter by the legislature on March 1, 1923. In all, Mrs. Smith's gifts eventually totaled about $700,000, which built another dormitory and teacher's cottage, a new heating plant, a printing shop, and a church, as well as added to the endowment.
At ceremonies on the campus on October 27, 1922, which were attended by local civic and religious leaders as well as Mrs. Smith and Presbyterian officials, the dormitory, teacher's cottage (Berry Cottage, after Mrs. Smith's parents) and refectory (dining hall) were dedicated. As part of the proceedings, the cornerstone for the new stone science hall was laid. By the following year, the science building and the stone gateway were completed, and on October 25, 1923, a second dedication was held on the campus led by JCSU President B. L. McCrory, at which Harry Harding, Charlotte Schools Superintendent, Dr. James Dudley, President of the Agricultural and Technical College of Greensboro (now North Carolina A&T), and others spoke. The high point of the ceremonies came when Mrs. Smith was presented with an oil painting of the arched entry gate that had been painted by the professor of French at the University.
All of the buildings and the gate arch on the campus built with Mrs. Smith's funds (except for the church) were designed by the superintendent of architecture for the Presbyterian Board of Missions, A. G. Lamont. Lamont's office was on Fifth Avenue in New York, and the Missions Board kept him busy designing many buildings for black colleges in the South which were funded by donors such as Mrs. Smith, although some designs were repeated in various locations. All of the structures were also built by the same Charlotte contractor, the Southeastern Construction Company. Southeastern built similar buildings for the Board of Missions from Lamont designs in Hot Springs, NC, Keysville, GA, and Cordele, GA, in 1924 as well.
There is no question that Mrs. Smith, the Presbyterian Board of Missions, and local leaders were proud of the revitalization of the school made possible by the generous Smith gifts and that the arched gateway to the renewed campus was an appropriate landmark to symbolize its rejuvenation and the commitment of those involved to make the school a strong and viable one.
Until next week!
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, "The Stone Entry Gates of Johnson C. Smith University," by Dr. William Huffman, September 5, 1984.
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