William Hooper Councill (1849-1909) was an educator, lawyer, minister, newspaper editor, politician, and author. He is most notable for being the founder, president, and first principal of Huntsville Normal School. Today, the school is known as Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University (AAMU), the state’s first historically black land-grant college or university (HBCU) in Huntsville, Madison County.
William H. Councill Councill was born on July 12, 1849, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to enslaved parents William and Mary Jane Councill; his father escaped slavery but was unable to gain freedom for his family. In 1857, He, along with his mother and younger brother were sold to slave traders at a Richmond, Virginia, slave market and brought to north Alabama and sold to David C. Humphreys, a prominent Huntsville judge, lawyer, and cotton planter. The sale took place on the auction block at the Green Bottom Inn, a Huntsville hotel that would later become part of the campus of AAMU. Councill then labored in the cotton fields until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he escaped to freedom through the Confederate lines to Tennessee. In 1865, after the war ended, he returned to Alabama to attend a school started by Quaker missionary Wilmer Walton in Stevenson, Jackson County. After graduating in 1867, Councill worked as a porter and teacher for a few years. In 1868, he married Elizabeth Bettie Hunt McFarland (whom he would later divorce) and moved to Huntsville.
Committed to providing an education for black children in the area, Councill opened the Lincoln Normal School in Huntsville despite having very few resources. His experiences in Reconstruction-era Alabama had helped him realize that strategic political connections were the most viable path to advancing African American education in the state. He therefore joined the Republican Party and became the chief enrolling clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives in 1872, holding the post until 1874. In addition, he served as the secretary of the Washington, D.C.-based National Civil Rights Convention in 1873. Through his activities in local politics and his political posts, Councill aimed to address the need for equal rights and education for African Americans by lobbying legislators for funding. To further advance his cause, he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the state legislature in 1874; in 1875, he was offered a federal patronage position, which he declined.
William Hooper Councill Domestic Science Building Councill became further involved in the goal of advancing education opportunities for African American children in Alabama. Eventually, his political affiliations helped him to get an appointment that would solve the funding problem of the already existing Lincoln Normal School. Knowing that a state school would receive state funds, Councill successfully lobbied for the opportunity to lead the proposed new state school and in 1875, became the first principal of the State Colored Normal School in Huntsville, now AAMU. With this appointment, Councill would revolutionize education for African Americans in north Alabama through industrial education. He became a pioneer of this type of education in the state, although his contemporary, Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington, is more well-known in this field. Councill and Washington, though friends, often competed for financial and other support for their respective schools.
In 1891, AAMU was among three HBCU schools, along with Tuskegee and Alabama State University, that sought sustaining federal funds under the 1890 Morrill Land Grant Act. The three schools competed for the designation, and AAMU won the designation and became the official land-grant school for African Americans in Alabama. This significant accomplishment provided the school additional funding, enabling Councill to expand the institution by moving it to the present location in Normal, a community then just north of Huntsville. Administrators soon expanded the curriculum and course offerings in industrial and liberal arts education, and not long after, the school was approved to offer degree programs. With this significant achievement, the Huntsville State Colored Normal and Industrial School became the State Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes in 1896 and Councill became the first president.
Although Councill is most well-known for being the founder of AAMU, he made other, more notable contributions to the state of Alabama. In 1877, amid a turbulent political climate, Councill changed his party affiliation to the Democratic Party and founded the Herald, a weekly newspaper devoted to providing political and civic information; he served as editor and publisher until 1884. Through the paper, Councill openly voiced his philosophies about political, social, and educational issues. In 1885, Councill was instrumental in founding the St. John African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church in Huntsville. He studied theology after becoming an ordained elder of the A.M.E. church. In addition, he also studied law and was admitted to the Alabama State Bar, although he never formally practiced. Also that year, Councill married Maria Weeden; the couple would have three sons and one daughter. In 1887, he gained national attention when he filed a discrimination lawsuit against the federal Interstate Commerce Commission after being ejected from a first-class car on an Alabama train. He won the suit, but at a great personal expense. He briefly lost his job as president of the school when the legislature threatened to close the school if he remained its head but was reinstated after settling the lawsuit. Councill then concentrated on expanding the institution.
Councill was also a prolific orator and author. He was passionate about many topics, but primarily all of his writings and speeches focus on race, education, and African Americans in the work force. In his the most well-known work, The Negro Laborer: A Word to Him (1887), Councill wrote on how African Americans could best leverage their skills in the labor market under the contemporary conditions in the country. His Lamp of Wisdom; or Race Illuminated (1898) is often quoted in support of a liberal-arts education in connection to an industrial education. He believed that students needed some degree of both in order to be successful and to meet the challenges of an evolving world.
Councill died on April 9, 1909, having been president of AAMU for 32 years. He is buried on the campus of the university, and each year on Founder’s Day in May the school celebrates his contributions to African American education. Because of his enduring legacy and contributions to the city of Huntsville, the first public school for African Americans in Huntsville, William Hooper Councill High School, was named in his honor, as was the public housing community Councill Court.
Works by William Hooper Councill
The Negro Laborer: A Word to Him (1887)
Lamp of Wisdom (1898)
Negro Development in the South (1901)
The Servant Problem in the South (1901)
Bright Side of the Southern Question (1903)
Davis, Eddie, Jr. William Hooper Councill: The Greatest Negro the Race Ever Produced. Huntsville: Presh4word Publishing, 2013.
Morris, Vivian, and Curtis L. Morris. The Price They Paid. New York: Teachers College Press, 2002.
Morrison, Richard D. History of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. Huntsville: Liberal Arts Press, 1994.
Orr, Charles W. The Educational Philosophy of William Hooper Councill. Master’s thesis. Fiske University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1939.