Wilberforce University is a private, coed, liberal arts historically black university (HBCU) located in Wilberforce, Ohio. Affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, it was the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans. It participates in the United Negro College Fund.
The founding of the college was unique as a collaboration in 1856 by the Cincinnati, Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). They planned a college to provide classical education and teacher training for black youth. Leaders of both races made up the first board members.
When the number of students fell due to the American Civil War and financial losses closed the college in 1863, the AME Church purchased the institution to ensure its survival. Its first president, AME Bishop Daniel A. Payne, was one of the original founders. Prominent supporters and the US government donated funds for rebuilding after a fire in 1865. When the college added an industrial department in the late 19th century, state legislators could sponsor scholarship students.
The college attracted the top professors of the day, including W. E. B. Du Bois. In the 19th century, it enlarged its mission to include students from South Africa. The university supports the national Association of African American Museums to broaden the reach of its programs and assist smaller museums with professional standards.
Wilberforce requires all students to participate in cooperative education to meet graduation requirements. The cooperative program places students in internships that provide practical work experience in addition to academic training.
In October 2006, Wilberforce held the grand opening and dedication for the NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) and the associated Aerospace Education Laboratory (AEL). It was attended by Dr. Bernice G. Alston, deputy assistant administrator of NASA’s office of Education, and the Honorable David L. Hobson, U.S. Representative from Ohio's 7th congressional district.
NASA’s program is designed to provide training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to underprivileged students to support NASA’s future needs. There are 17 NASA SEMAA project sites through the United States. Through this partnership, Wilberforce will offer training sessions for students in grades K-12 during the academic year and during the summer. The AEL is computerized classroom that provided technology to students in grades 7–12 that supports the SEMAA training sessions.
Located three miles (5 km) from Xenia, Ohio in the southwestern part of the state, the founding of Wilberforce University was a collaboration among leaders of the Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. They planned to promote classical education and teacher training for black youth. Among the first 24 members of the Board of Trustees in 1855 were Bishop Daniel A. Payne, Rev. Lewis Woodson and Messrs. Ishmael Keith and Alfred Anderson, all of the AME Church. Also on the Board were Salmon P. Chase, then Governor of Ohio and a strong supporter of abolition; a member of the Ohio State Legislature, and other Methodist leaders from the white community. They named the college after the British abolitionist and statesman, William Wilberforce.
As a base for the college, the Cincinnati Conference bought a hotel, cottages and 54 acres (219,000 m2) of a resort property, named Tawawa Springs after a Shawnee word for "clear or golden water". European Americans had founded the health resort because of the springs, which historically the Native Americans had long used. Because of its location, the resort attracted summer people from both Cincinnati and the South. Some people in this area of abolitionist sentiment were shocked when wealthy Southern planters arrived at the resort with their entourages of enslaved or free African-American mistresses and mixed-race "natural" (illegitimate) children.
Given migration patterns, this was also an area where numerous free blacks settled, many having moved across the Ohio River from the South to find better work and living conditions. In addition, some southern states prohibited free blacks from settling. Xenia had quite a large free black population, as did other towns in southwestern Ohio, such as Chillicothe, Yellow Springs and Zanesville. Free blacks and anti-slavery white supporters used houses in Xenia as stations on the Underground Railroad in the years before the war. Wilberforce College also supported freedom-seeking slaves.
The college opened for classes in 1856, and by 1858 its trustees selected Rev. Richard S. Rust as the first President. By 1860 the university had more than 200 students. Most were from the South rather than Ohio or northern states. They were the "natural" mixed-race sons and daughters of wealthy white planters and their African-American mistresses. The fathers paid for the education denied their children in the South. They were among the fathers who did not abandon their mixed-race children but provided them with the social capital of education. The outbreak of the Civil War threatened the college's finances. Not only were Methodist church resources diverted, but the southern planters withdrew their children, and no more paying students came from the South. The college closed temporarily in 1862 when the Cincinnati Methodist Church was unable to fund it fully.
Led by Bishop Daniel Payne, in 1863 the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) decided to buy the college to ensure its survival; they paid the cost of its debt. Founders were Bishop Payne, who was selected as its first President; James A. Shorter, pastor of the AME Church in Zanesville and future bishop; and Dr. John G. Mitchell, principal of the Eastern District Public School of Cincinnati. Payne was the first African American to become a college president in the United States.
When an arson fire damaged some of the buildings in 1865, Salmon P. Chase, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Dr. Charles Avery from Pittsburgh each contributed $10,000 to rebuild the college. Mary E. Monroe, another white supporter, contributed $4200. The US Congress approved a $25,000 grant for the college, which raised additional monies privately from a wide range of donors.
In 1888 the AME Church came to an agreement with the Republican-dominated state legislature that brought considerable financial support and political patronage to the college. It negotiated contemporary pressures to emphasize industrial education for many black youth by accommodating both that and the classical education. As an act of political patronage, the state legislature established a commercial, normal and industrial (CNI) department at Wilberforce College. While this created complications for administration and questions about the mission of the college, in the near term it brought tens of thousands of dollars annually in state aid to the campus. Each state legislator could award an annual scholarship to the CNI department at Wilberforce, enabling hundreds of African American students to attend classes. The state-funded students could complete liberal arts at the college, and students at Wilberforce could also take "industrial" classes. By the mid-1890s, the college also admitted students from South Africa, as part of the AME Church's mission to Africa. The church helped support such students with scholarships, as well as arranging board with local families.
The college became a center of black cultural and intellectual life in southwestern Ohio. Because the area did not receive many European immigrants, blacks had more opportunities at diverse work. Xenia and nearby towns developed a professional elite.
Generations of leaders: teachers, ministers, doctors, politicians and college administrators, and later men and women of all occupations, have been educated at the university. In the 19th century, Bishop Payne established his dream, a theological seminary, which was named in his honor. Top-ranking scholars taught at the college, including W.E.B. DuBois, the philologist William S. Scarborough, Edward Clarke, and John G. Mitchell, dean of the seminary. In 1894 Lieutenant Charles Young, the third black graduate of West Point and then the only African-American commissioned officer in the US Army, led the newly established military science department.
Additional leading scholars taught at the college in the early 20th century, such as Theophilus Gould Steward, a politician, theologian and missionary; and the sociologist Richard R. Wright, Jr., the first African American to earn a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a future AME bishop and became president of Wilberforce. These men were also prominent in the American Negro Academy, founded in 1897 to support the work of scholars, writers and other intellectuals. In 1969 the organization was revived as the Black Academy of Arts and Letters.
Growth of the university after the mid-20th century led to construction of a new campus in 1967, located one mile (1.6 km) away. In 1974, the area was devastated by part of the Super Outbreak tornado storm, which destroyed much of the city of Xenia and the old campus of Wilberforce.
Older campus buildings still in use include the Carnegie Library, built in 1909 with matching funds from the Carnegie Foundation, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places; Shorter Hall, built in 1922; and the Charles Leander Hill Gymnasium, built in 1958. The former residence of Charles Young near Wilberforce was designated a National Historic Landmark, in recognition of his significant and groundbreaking career in the US Army.
In the 1970s, the university established the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, to provide exhibits and outreach to the region. It is now operated by the Ohio Historical Society. The university supports the national Association of African American Museums, to provide support especially to smaller museums across the country.
In 2008 the US Department of Education, Office of the Inspector General (OIG) completed an audit of financial management, specifically the university's management of Title IV funds, which related to its work-study program. For the two-year audit period (2004–2005, 2005–2006) the audit found numerous faults. In summary, the OIG found that the university did not comply with Title IV, HEA requirements because of administrative problems, including staff turnover, insufficient financial aid staff, failure to have written procedures, and lack of communication with other offices. The University worked with auditors to set up appropriate staff and procedures.
Wilberforce University teams, nicknamed athletically as the Bulldogs, are part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), primarily competing as an Independent of the Association of Independent Institutions (AII). The Bulldogs formerly competed as members of the American Mideast Conference. Men's sports include basketball and cross country; while women's sports include basketball and cross country.
Students also participate in the following intramural sports: basketball, softball, volleyball, flag football, and tennis.
All nine of the National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations currently have chapters at Wilberforce University. These organizations are: