Founded on November 20, 1865, by freedmen during the Reconstruction Era in Talladega, Talladega County, Talladega College is the oldest private historically black liberal arts college in Alabama. The school is a prime example of the many black colleges that were founded through the collaborative efforts of freed slaves, missionary organizations, and the federal government. Civil rights activists and attorneys J. L. Chestnut Jr. and Arthur Shores and NFL star and football coach Deion Sanders are noted graduates.
Talladega College Seven months after the end of the Civil War, freedmen William Savery and Thomas Tarrant, who both resided in Talladega, met each other at a convention in Mobile convened to address the needs of recently freed slaves. While there, they decided to open a school for the children of recently freed blacks, believing that education was critical for preserving their liberty. The pair, with the assistance of Gen. Wager T. Swayne, assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, began turning their dream into a reality.
Talladega College held its first classes in the home of David White Sr., a former slave whose two-room house served as the school; pupils were taught by Leonard Johnson, a former slave who had acquired an education. Soon after classes commenced, the schoolhouse grew overcrowded, and additional space became necessary. Savery and Tarrant then petitioned Swayne to purchase the nearby Baptist Academy, a school for white males built by slaves, including Savery and Tarrant. Swayne convinced the American Missionary Association (AMA) and the Freedmen’s Bureau to buy the building and an additional 20 acres for $23,000. In gratitude, the teachers and trustees named the new institution Swayne School. The AMA also sent C. M. Hopson, a white female missionary from Ohio, to teach the pupils. The school opened in November 1867 in the former academy with 140 students under the leadership of Henry Edward Brown, a Congregationalist minister who served as the first principal of the school. Brown, Hopson, and two other teachers, Phoebe Beebe and William Gilbert, who transferred from the AMA primary school in Montgomery, served as the institution’s first four faculty members. As the state’s first institution for the education of blacks, the Swayne School focused on primary education. Over the next two years, trustees pursued an official charter for the school, which was issued by Talladega County on February 17, 1869. The school was then renamed Talladega College.
DeForest Chapel at Talladega College Under its second president, Henry Swift DeForest (1879-96), the institution introduced a small number of college-level courses, such as Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics, in the 1880s. The collegiate curriculum emphasized the liberal arts, but DeForest soon realized that few blacks had the educational preparation for college-level work. Thus the college continued to educate students at the primary and intermediate levels. Between 1879 and 1896, enrollment increased from 203 to 577 students, owing largely to Talladega’s new status as a college-degree-granting institution. Only 11 students were registered in the college preparatory program during the 1881-82 academic year, but by the 1894-95 academic year, that number had increased to 34. Zachariah Jones and John Reuben Savage were the only students enrolled in the freshmen class of 1891 and both earned Talladega’s first conferred collegiate degrees in 1895. By the year 1900, 10 students had graduated from Talladega with collegiate diplomas.
In the twentieth century, the university experienced exceptional growth, owing largely to the leadership of its six presidents. Under John M. P. Metcalfe (1908-16), the college divided the college and secondary coursework. Metcalfe replaced the college department with a college of arts and science, reduced faculty teaching loads, and added a fourth year to the three-year college preparatory program. Frederick Sumner (1916-33) continued to improve the academic standing of the institution. During Sumner’s tenure, Talladega was among one of the first schools added to the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools’ list of approved schools. He also set a goal of creating a $1 million permanent endowment. By 1932, the college’s endowment had reached $650,000, the seventh largest endowment among private black colleges.
Amistad Mural Buell Gallagher’s (1933-43) major contribution while Talladega’s president was the creation of a college council, which provided faculty, staff, and students with a voice in the development of college policies, a unique idea at that time. In 1939, the college dedicated the new Savery Library, named for co-founder William Savery. The library features a series of paintings, known as the Amistad Murals, by noted artist and former teacher Hale Woodruff. The three large-scale works depict events surrounding a group of Africans captured by slavers and brought to North America on the Amistad. African American lawyer and civil rights activist George Williamson Crawford was instrumental in commissioning the murals, and Crawford Hall on the campus is named for him. James T. Cater served as acting president in 1943 after Gallagher’s presidency ended and thus became the first African American to head the institution. Because the AMA insisted on appointing a white president, the college searched for two years for Gallagher’s replacement without giving full consideration to Cater, despite his being revered by the faculty and students. Adam Daniel Beittal (1945-52) became Talladega’s next president in 1945.
Beittel’s administration quickly turned sour. He wanted to end the college’s elementary and secondary schools. The secondary school was the only place black students could earn a high school diploma in the county and was one of the few interracial schools in the South. Both the elementary and secondary school were discontinued in 1948. Beittel’s decision began an era of racial tension on the campus, and he was dismissed in 1952.
Stairwell in Swayne Hall, Talladega College Talladega College’s first black president, Arthur D. Gray (1952-63), replaced Beittel in 1952. An alumnus of the school, his collaborative leadership style helped usher the college out of a very difficult time. Following World War II, Talladega became more visible in race relations. Unlike the public black colleges in the South, resistance toward segregation and Jim Crow at Talladega involved not only students but faculty and administrators as well. Despite his eventual dismissal, Beittel had been an outspoken critic of segregation. This sentiment was echoed by Gray. In 1956, Gray offered Autherine Lucy, the first black student admitted to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, residence at the college after she was expelled. Likewise, the student body wrote Alabama governor John M. Patterson in 1960 to protest the expulsion of students from a black public state college in Montgomery for an orderly protest against segregation. In 1961, Talladega students protested the beating of a fellow student and the student’s driver who were returning from Christmas vacation in Anniston. Later that year, the students formed a social action committee to protest segregation.
Gray was replaced in 1964 by Herman H. Long (1964-76), considered one of Talladega’s greatest leaders for his aggressive, imaginative, and dynamic style. During his tenure, Long was one of the country’s chief authorities on race relations; notably, Lowndes County Freedom Organization co-founder and future Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael was invited to the campus in 1966 and 1968 in support of his Black Power movement. Long is especially credited for improving campus morale and securing funding from national organizations for the institution. He also served as president of the United Negro College Fund from 1970 to 1975. It was under his leadership that the now famous UNCF motto “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” was adopted.
Talladega’s current president, Billy C. Hawkins, is its twentieth and took office on January 1, 2008. He served on the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Capital Financing Advisory Board under former Secretary of Education Rod Page. He is currently a member of the United Negro College Fund’s board of directors and a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) President’s Council.
Swayne Hall at Talladega College Into the twenty-first century, Talladega is one of the smallest historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), with 350 students enrolled in 16 academic programs. Talladega has produced a substantial number of graduates who have earned professional and doctoral degrees. Currently, more than 80 percent of Talladega’s graduates pursue post-baccalaureate education. The National Science Foundation ranks Talladega second among U.S. colleges in graduating students that receive doctorate degrees. The college consists of four academic divisions: Social Sciences and Education, Business and Administration, Humanities and Fine Arts, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Swayne Hall, the original school building, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. Talladega is part of the State Collegiate Athletics Association and has teams in men’s basketball, baseball, and golf, as well as women’s volleyball, softball, and basketball. The sports teams wear the official school colors: crimson and blue. Prominent Talladega alumni include Eunice Johnson, founder and director of Ebony Fashion Fair and secretary and treasurer of Johnson Publishing Company, and Odessa Woolfolk, president emerita of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
- Drewry, Henry N. and Humphrey Doermann. Stand and Prosper: Private Black Colleges and Their Stories. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Jones, Maxine D. Talladega College: The First Century. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
- Williams, Juan and Dwayne Ashley. I’ll Find a Way of Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.