Saint Joseph Chapel Founded by Mobile’s first Catholic bishop as a seminary in 1830, Spring Hill College is one of Alabama’s oldest institutions of higher learning. From its inception the “college,” or boarding school attached to the seminary, attracted a pan-American student body. However, most of its boarders were boys from prosperous families in Mobile, New Orleans, and Pensacola—most of whom were not Catholic. Spring Hill was the first college in the Deep South to desegregate, and it did so voluntarily in 1954. Today, it continues to boast of its diverse student body.
In 1830, Bishop of Mobile Michael Portier purchased 300 acres of land from the city of Mobile and a landowner named William Robertson to establish the seminary and boarding school. The appealing site sat on a hill six miles west of Mobile and afforded panoramic views of the town and its harbor. Portier recruited two priests and four seminarians from France to staff the school. The bishop himself taught theology to the ecclesiastical students, who numbered six the first year.
Michael Portier Portier originally intended the boarding school to provide students under 12 with an education in classical and modern languages, mathematics, history, belles lettres, and the sciences. He soon relaxed the age restriction, and the population mushroomed from roughly 30 students the first year to almost 130 by 1832, as parents sought a haven for their sons from the persistent threat of yellow fever. Initially, the bishop himself taught Greek at the school and, due to the lack of priests, pressed seminarians into service as teaching assistants or monitors. Difficulties staffing the school persisted until 1847, when Portier recruited French Jesuits from Lyon to take over.
During the Civil War, the college rolls swelled with names like Semmes, Maury, Taylor, Beauregard, and Bullock, as high officers of the Confederacy tried to shelter their sons approaching draft age. Boys sent to Spring Hill were often separated from their families for the war’s duration. Unrest among those who wanted to be part of the war effort was formidable, and eventually the college formed two military companies. Many Jesuit Fathers became chaplains for the Confederacy, and a recruiter tried to conscript all 40 of the Jesuit brothers at Spring Hill into the Confederate Army. However, College President Francis Gautrelet, S.J., dispatched an urgent message to the assistant secretary of war in Richmond, who granted a temporary reprieve of the brothers’ conscription.
Spring Hill College, 1918 In the lean years of postwar Reconstruction, Spring Hill recruited heavily among the sons of Central American and Cuban leaders. Many of them attended and introduced Latin American culture to the school’s mostly American student body. When complaints mounted among English-speaking students that Spanish was challenging the dominance of English on campus, the Jesuits organized a Spanish–American league among the new arrivals, wherein each member pledged to speak only English, except at prescribed hours on Sunday and holidays, and to report members who broke the pledge. The league’s rules were so well enforced that Hispanic students won most of the prizes in the English department that year, and the levied fines provided a luxurious end-of-year banquet for them and their American classmates.
Fannie Motley Graduation Like other Jesuit colleges, Spring Hill followed a European model in which students began attending at age nine and studied subjects at both the secondary and collegiate levels. Three age groups comprised the student body: “minims,” or boys aged nine to 12, who engaged in preparatory work; adolescents of high school age; and college students. Spring Hill housed the groups separately and provided them with separate recreation areas, or “yards.” In the 1920s, the school ended admissions for the minim level and expanded the high school to four years to meet accreditation standards.
The sons of Mobile’s established families—Catholic or otherwise—attended Spring Hill High School and the college. The high school persisted until its closing in 1935. In 1932, the college launched an extension program with Saturday classes aimed at adults, and women were admitted as full-time students to the program for the first time. The first two women to graduate, in a separate commencement held at the end of summer in 1937, were Marie Fidelis Yeend and Genevieve Cordilia Jarvis. With the admission of females to the regular undergraduate program in 1952 came the hiring in 1953 of the first full-time female faculty, Ella Morris, a special lecturer in biology. In 1953, Betty Jo Stringer, the first traditional undergraduate female, received a B.S. degree in biology.
Successive presidents of Spring Hill, Patrick Donnelly, S.J., and Andrew Smith, S.J., brought landmark changes to the college after World War II. Both men viewed racial segregation as an ethical and moral dilemma and, as early as 1949, sought incremental opportunities to open the college to black students. Finally, in September 1954, Smith presided over the enrollment of nine African Americans students to the college. On May 29, 1956, Fannie Motley became the first black graduate of a previously white college in Alabama. Spring Hill’s successful incorporation of desegregation into its teaching mission was exemplified again on January 21, 1957, when white male residents of Mobile Hall, a dormitory, repulsed a raid by the Ku Klux Klan. Once alerted, students streamed from both ends of the building carrying whatever was handy and put the panicked Klansmen to flight.
Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, S.J. For 10 years, Spring Hill was the only desegregated white college in a five-state swath of the Deep South. Like many denominational colleges, it boasted no national reputation and few graduates of national prominence. Nevertheless, the school earned the respect of Martin Luther King Jr., who mentioned the moral significance of Spring Hill’s desegregation in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “I want to commend the Catholic leaders of Alabama for desegregating Spring Hill College several years ago.” Decades after its quiet, historic desegregation, Spring Hill College still boasts a diverse student body and welcomes students from all faiths and backgrounds. The former seminary currently enrolls approximately 1,450 students. In addition to the offerings of a traditional four-year liberal-arts college, courses of study include master’s programs in business, education, nursing, and theological studies.
Boyle, Charles J. “The First Thiry Years.” Spring Hill Alumni Magazine (Fall 2005): 6-14.
———, ed. Twice Remembered: Moments in the History of Spring Hill College. Mobile, Ala.: The Friends of Spring Hill College Library, 1993.
Kenny, Michael, S. J. Catholic Culture in Alabama: Centenary Story of Spring Hill College 1830–1930. New York: America Press, 1931.
Lipscomb, Oscar H. “The Administration of Michael Portier, Vicar Apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas, 1825-1829, and First Bishop of Mobile, 1829-1859.” Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1963.
Padgett, Charles Stephen. “Schooled in Invisibility: The Desegregation of Spring Hill College, Mobile, Alabama, 1948–1963.” Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 2000.