Fact Friday 85 – Boomtown Beginnings - A College for Freedmen
Happy Friday everyone!
Picking up where we left off last week…
Others were aware of the special needs of former slaves immediately after the Civil War. The more fortunate freedmen had skills. Many were blacksmiths, cooks, carpenters or cobblers. But most were not equipped to earn a decent living and had little hope of education. With freedom, blacks gathered wherever they could, listening to black preachers and joining in their own music. Mrs. Kathleen Hayes summoned the black members of Charlotte's first Presbyterian church "to come down out of the gallery and worship God on the main floor." She, with others, began to worship at a site on the corner of third and Davidson, which Reverend Samuel C. Alexander, a white Presbyterian pastor at Steele Creek, had helped them purchase. Several white Presbyterian ministers looked for a way to prepare the freedmen for becoming educated leaders and teachers.
It undoubtedly was a prickly, complicated path through the presbytery meetings in 1866 discussing what must have been a radical idea – a black college in Piedmont North Carolina. Nevertheless, the plan was cautiously approved by creating a new Presbytery named Catawba. In 1867, the first school session met in a Union soldiers’ hospital in a poor part of Charlotte called Log Town (later known as Brooklyn). Since a better location was needed the freedmen’s spokesman tried to buy 8 acres of land for the school from confederate Colonel William R. Myers. Myers wanted $3000 for the entire 130-acre plot north of town. This was far beyond their reach. But one day, as Colonel Myers walked by the old Confederate Navy Yard, he saw several white man loading wagons with old timbers from a demolished building. They told him they were taking them to Log Town for a college for blacks. He suggested another location for the lumber and gave the freedmen the very same 8 acres they had wanted earlier, provided they place their school on a wooded promontory on Beatties Ford Road. The choice property was theirs. And with the gift of $1900 from Mrs. Henry Biddle of Philadelphia, Biddle Institute (later Biddle University and now Johnson C. Smith University) was begun, not to teach agriculture or manual arts, but to become "the colored Princeton of the south," with undergraduate and theological training for young men. "So many white professors had been to Yale and Princeton, they shaped it (Biddle) according to what they were accustomed," explained Inez Moore Parker, archivist at Smith University. Parker's book quoted an account of the school’s beginning:
Reverend Willis L. Miller came to visit in the winter of 1865-66, soon after the commission had been received, and he had conceived the idea of immediately founding the collegiate and theological school. It seemed an unreasonable thing to do when scarcely a dozen colored people in the county could read and fewer still could write, when they all were in abject poverty and the whole south was prostrated by war. But Mr. Miller urged that funds would be more easily secured then than later because the Freedmen’s Bureau would aid and the northern people were greatly interested and would give freely.
Biddle Hall (1884), a National Register Historic Site, is the oldest surviving structure on the Johnson C. Smith University campus, a historically black college.
Early Biddle presidents were white Presbyterian ministers. Reverend Stephen Matoon, a former missionary to Siam, was the first. His wife, Mary, taught at both Biddle and the Presbyterian College for Women on N. College Street. Their grandson, Norman Thomas, grew up on the Biddle campus and later ran for president of the United States six times as an independent. Dr. D.J. Sanders became the first black president of the school, soon followed by black faculty. The first Biddle alumnus named president was Reverend Henry L. McCrorey, who had taught Greek and Hebrew in the theological school of Biddle. McCrorey YMCA was named for him. Jane Berry (Mrs. Johnson C.) Smith, a wealthy white Pennsylvania widow, met Reverend McCrorey at a time when she was searching for an extraordinary memorial for her husband. Smith, a druggist, had extensive interests in steel. Mrs. Smith donated over $700,000 between 1921 in 1929 for buildings and endowment. In honor of this gift, Biddle became Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU).
To read more about the history of Charlotte’s own historically black college/university (HBCU) and the sole local participant in the upcoming CIAA Tournament, click here!
Biddle Hall, present day.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
Charlotte North Carolina: A Brief History; Mary Kratt, 2009
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass