Central State University’s long history intertwined with neighbor

Jack Thomas was named the ninth president of Central State University earlier this year. Central State University photo

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Jack Thomas was named the ninth president of Central State University earlier this year. Central State University photo

Earlier this year Jack Thomas was named the ninth president of Central State University, the historically black college located in Greene County.

The announcement prompts a look back at the roots of Central State, which are entwined with its neighbor Wilberforce University, the first private, historically African American college formed in the United States.

It’s been more than 130 years since the Combined Normal and Industrial Department at Wilberforce University evolved into Central State University.

Compelling details make up CSU’s rich history. Here’s what you should know:

Built on the site of an early health resort: Wilberforce University was founded in 1856 at the former Tawawa Springs, a health resort located east of Xenia at a site adjoining the current location of Central State University.

Some didn't like the visitors: Southern slaveholders would travel to the resort for relaxation and often brought their slaves. Northerners did not approve of the practice and business declined. The resort closed in 1855.

An intellectual mecca: Named in honor of William Wilberforce, an 18th-century abolitionist, the Tawawa Springs hotel and cottages were transformed into Wilberforce University, to "provide an intellectual mecca and refuge from slavery's first rule: ignorance," according to the university's historical narrative.

Vocational education for the students: The new Combined Normal and Industrial Department offered teacher training and vocational education for students. An early catalogue listed auto mechanics, blacksmithing and forging, carpentry, and shoe-making and repairing among the courses.

Native flora: According to historical information provided by CSU's website, every tree native to Ohio and the Midwest is believed to be represented in the Tawawa Woods bordering the campus.

Four-year degree: Central State College was formed in 1951. The Combined Normal and Industrial Department developed into a four-year program and split from Wilberforce University in 1947 before being renamed.

A change in status: In 1965, the school achieved university status and became Central State University.

Tornado devastates the university: A tornado destroyed more than 80 percent of the campus on April 3, 1974. Four people were killed and more than 20 others were injured. Thirteen buildings were destroyed and 29 others damaged. The damage amounted to $30 million.

Spirituals, gospel and jazz: The internationally acclaimed CSU chorus performs in many styles including African American spirituals, gospel and jazz. The group performs locally with the Dayton Opera and the Dayton Philharmonic, as well as taking part in European tours and appearing at the White House.

Gardens symbolic for students: The Sunken Gardens serve as the heart of campus. Each fall, entering freshman march though the gardens during a candlelight ceremony. Graduating seniors proceed through the sunken gardens on their way to commencement.

Land-grant institution: Central State University was designated a land-grant institution in 2014, a classification it had sought since 1890. It is one of only two universities in the state to achieve the designation.

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