Wilberforce University, the country’s oldest private historically black university with origins dating back before the Civil War, is celebrating its 163rd year.
The original university had its start on land known for its natural springs and pastoral beauty located east of Xenia. Elias Drake, a lawyer and former speaker of the Ohio General Assembly, purchased the land and built a health resort on the site in 1850. He called it Tawawa Springs.
When Southern slaveholders traveled to the resort for relaxation, they brought their slaves. Northerners didn’t approve and business declined. Eventually, the resort closed in 1855.
A stop on the Underground Railroad, the property was purchased by the Methodist Episcopal Church. The hotel and cottages transformed into a school to “provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance,” according to the university’s historical narrative.
Named in honor of William Wilberforce, an 18th-century abolitionist, the university was founded in 1856. Two years later, more than 200 students from around the country, including slaves who had escaped, attended the university. When the Civil War began, enrollment declined and the original university closed in 1862.
The following year Bishop Daniel A. Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal Church negotiated the purchase of the university. Payne would become the second president of Wilberforce and the first African-American to lead a university.
In 1887, the combined normal (e.g. vocational) and industrial department was established by the State of Ohio and offered teacher training and vocational education. An early catalogue listed auto mechanics, blacksmithing and forging, carpentry, and shoe-making and repairing among the courses.
The university became a center of black cultural and intellectual life. Famous author and civil rights activist W.E.B DuBois accepted a job at Wilberforce in 1894 and spent two years teaching.
Since those early years, the attendance rolls have been filled with influential African-Americans including educator, writer and activist Hallie Quinn Brown; American jazz bandleader Myron “Tiny” Bradshaw; James H. McGee, the first mayor of Dayton; and opera soprano Leontyne Price.
The normal and industrial department developed into a four-year program and in 1947 split from the university and was renamed Central State College in 1951. In 1965 the school achieved university status and became Central State University.
As Wilberforce University grew, construction of a new campus began in 1967 just a mile down the road. Wright Hall was the first building erected on the new campus.
The State of Ohio bought the old campus for $600,000 in 1982. The Ohio General Assembly and the United States Congress designated it as the location for the National Museum of Afro-American History and Culture.
Today hundreds of students attend the historic university. “Knowing that I am going to school on a campus that is rich in black history is exciting for me,” said Tatianna Hood, a junior from Los Angeles.
Reflecting back to the first students to attend the school, she said, “I would feel very disappointed in myself if I were to disappoint them. If I don’t succeed it’s like I failed the people who planted seeds.”
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