| Dr. Simon Green Atkins distinguished himself in his home state of North Carolina as an advocate of teacher-training programs for African Americans. He founded a small school, Winston-Salem Teachers College, that he developed into Winston-Salem State University, a four-year institution, and oversaw its transition from private to state control. His abiding interest in teacher-training also led him to become a founder of the North Carolina Negro Teachers Association. The oldest child of a brick layer and former slaves Allen and Eliza Atkins, Simon Green Atkins was born on June 11, 1863, in the village of Haywood, in Chatham County, North Carolina, between Sanford and Raleigh. His town flourished during the period just after the Revolutionary War, but by the late 19th century the railroad and the neighboring town of Moncure had overshadowed it. At one time the area was considered as a location for the state capital as well as the state university. As a child, Atkins worked on a farm with his grandparents.
Atkins studied in the town school under pioneer black educators who came from St. Augustine’s Normal and Collegiate Institute (later St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh). One of these was Anna Julia Cooper, later prominent for her work as an activist, scholar, feminist, and school administrator in Washington, D.C. This cadre of educators went out into remote communities to teach rural blacks. Atkins also taught at the town school for a while before his college years, and in 1880 he enrolled in St. Augustine’s. He spent summers teaching in the rural schools of Chatham and Moore counties. After he graduated with distinction in 1884, renowned educator and orator Joseph Charles Price, president of Livingstone College, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church-supported institution in Salisbury, North Carolina, invited Atkins to join his faculty. Atkins agreed and became grammar school department head. He spent six years at Livingstone (1884–90) and spent the last two years of his tenure there in the dual role as educator and treasurer of the college. During summer months he conducted institutes for black teachers in various counties.
The town educators of Winston (before its merger in 1913 with Salem to become Winston-Salem) lured Atkins to the post as principal of the Depot Street School, where he remained from 1890 to 1895. This was the state’s largest public school for African Americans. His work with the North Carolina Negro Teachers’ Association (NCNTA), which he helped to organize about 1881, had stimulated his interest in teacher-training schools for blacks. He directed this group as it established the foundation for a standard black teachers’ college in the state. Soon after he began his duties at Depot Street, he intensified his efforts to build such a school for African Americans and sought assistance from the Winston Board of Trade, Chamber of Commerce, and local white residents. By then, the state had begun plans to fund an agricultural college for its African American residents; hearing this, Atkins sought funds to locate the new college in Winston. Local support for this move was good, as the black community donated $2,000, R. J. Reynolds of tobacco fame contributed $500, and Atkins obtained 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land along with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce. Although Atkins lobbied the state legislature in Raleigh on behalf of this plan, Winston and its residents lost out to nearby Greensboro, where citizens offered 14 acres (57,000 m2) of land and $11,000.
The university was established by Dr. Simon Green Atkins in 1892 with funds donated by industrialist John Fox Slater. Chartered by the state of North Carolina in 1897 as Slater Industrial and State Normal School and renamed Winston-Salem Teachers College in 1925, it was the first African American institution in the United States to grant degrees in elementary teacher education. The name was changed to Winston-Salem State University in 1969, and it merged into the University of North Carolina system in 1972.