| The impetus to establish a school for the black citizens of Alabama, which would eventually become Alabama State University, began shortly after an event that not only tore this country apart, but created a far different United States in which relationships, and attitudes, were altered irrevocably.
The Civil War effected numerous changes in the United States, especially in the South, for not only did that war result in the end of slavery, but it also brought about considerable change in the relationships between blacks and whites. Nowhere was this changed relationship more clearly seen than in education. Before the war, the right to an education, even of the most rudimentary sort, was the private reserve of whites. All that changed with the Northern victory as black Southerners, with assistance of Northern white missionaries and the leaders of African-American churches, set out to establish educational institutions for the freedmen.
Blacks in the Black Belt of Alabama, the heart of the Southern Confederacy, evinced a keen interest in providing educational opportunities for their children. In 1867, African-American leaders founded Lincoln Normal School at Marion in Perry County, Alabama. Alabama State University is a direct descendent of Lincoln Normal School, thus making it one of the oldest institutions of higher education founded by black Americans. In 1868, the American Missionary Association (AMA) leased the Lincoln Normal School building and operated and financed the school. In 1869 the AMA, with the support of $2,800 from the Freedman's Bureau of the federal government and further support from the "colored people of Alabama," raised $4,200 to construct a new building. In 1870, while the AMA still provided the teachers, the state of Alabama began its support of the institution when the Legislature appropriated $486 for the school's use. The state's support rose to $1,250 the next year.
Though many people worked to establish Lincoln Normal School, Peyton Finley's efforts contributed most in the early years to make the institution permanent. In 1871 Finley, the first black-elected member of the State Board of Education, petitioned the Legislature to establish a "university for colored people," but the Legislature rejected his request. Finley did not stop, and in 1873 his efforts gained success when the Alabama Legislature established "a State Normal School and University for the Education of the Colored Teachers and Students." The Act would take effect only if the president and trustees of Lincoln Normal School would place that facility at the disposal of the state in order for the new university to be established. The institution's first president, George N. Card, accepted that provision and in 1874 he led the effort in reorganizing Lincoln Normal School in Marion as America's first state-supported educational institution for blacks. The school continued at Marion for the next 13 years.
While Lincoln operated in Marion, blacks continued to press for a more prominently supported school for black youths. A major change on their behalf came in 1887 when the legislature authorized the establishment of the Alabama Colored People's University. The act allocated $10,000 for the purchase of land and the construction of buildings, and it set aside $7,500 annually for operating expenses.
The State Normal School and University at Marion would be discontinued, provided, of course, that officials of the black school could find a suitable new location for the school that was acceptable to whites. Under the leadership of President William Burns Paterson, who was white, black citizens who wanted the university in Montgomery pledged $5,000 in cash and land and donated the use of some temporary buildings. Less than eight months after the passage of the enabling legislation, the university opened in Montgomery at Beulah Baptist Church with a faculty of nine members. The university taught its first classes in Montgomery on October 3, 1887.
Though Paterson and others had overcome initial opposition to locating the school in Montgomery, opponents to state support of education for blacks remained hostile to the new university. Indeed, such opponents filed suit in state court and won a ruling in 1887 from the Alabama Supreme Court that declared unconstitutional certain sections of the legislation that established the university for African-Americans. Thus, the school operated for two years solely on meager tuition fees, voluntary service and donations until by act of the Legislature in 1889 the state resumed its support.
The new law changed the name of the school from university to Normal School for Colored Students, thus skirting the Supreme Court's finding, and re-established the $7,500 state appropriation. Indeed, 1889 was a pivotal year in the development of the university because the "colored people of Montgomery" also formally conveyed to state authorities the previously pledged sum of $3,000 and the land for the development of a permanent campus at the university's current location between Decatur and Hall streets. The university erected Tullibody Hall the next year as its first permanent building. That building burned in 1904 and was replaced in 1906 by the university's first brick structure, which also took the name of Tullibody Hall.
Paterson, who had guided the university through the early years, and who is generally considered its founder because of his 37 years of service to it, died in 1915. Ironically, Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and considered one of the premier African-Americans in this country during this period, died the same year. And yet, both institutions have survived these two deaths to educate thousands of African-Americans to this day.
During the following decade presidents John William Beverly, who was the institution's first black teacher and president, and George Washington Trenholm organized the institution as a four-year teacher training high school and added a junior college department. In the early 1920s the university began operating on the four-quarter system and added the departments of home economics and commerce. This decade of growth and change also saw the purchase of additional land, including an 80-acre farm which constitutes the bulk of its current holdings. The state also appropriated $50,000 for the construction of dormitories and dining facilities.
In 1925 George Washington Trenholm died after five years in office and was succeeded by his 25-year-old son, Harper Councill Trenholm. The younger Trenholm would serve the university as president for 37 years. H. C. Trenholm's tenure was one of tremendous growth and development for the university. He oversaw the change from a junior college to a full four-year institution, a process that was completed in 1928 and which enabled the college to convey its first baccalaureate degree in teacher education in 1931. In 1940 Trenholm initiated a graduate degree program, and State Teachers College awarded its first master's degree in 1943. The school also established branch campuses in Mobile and Birmingham.
Trenholm was eager for the institution to develop and gain recognition. Thus he worked hard to improve the physical facilities in concert with advances in the quality of academic programs. During the economic expansion that followed the end of the Great Depression, the university constructed eight permanent brick buildings, a swimming pool and a stadium for sporting events. The state also allowed the institution to change its name to reflect changes in programs. In 1929 it became State Teachers College, Alabama State College for Negroes in 1948 and Alabama State College in 1954. Trenholm also gained for the university the recognition he desired. In 1935 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which accredited black and white colleges separately during those years, granted State Teachers College a Class B recognition; it raised the college's level to Class A in 1943.
Alabama State and its people have made major contributions to the development of the state and the nation. But none of those involvements were more important, or affected the institution more negatively, than involvement of students and employees in the Civil Rights Movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first of the direct action campaigns of the modern Civil Rights Movement, awakened a new consciousness among the students, faculty and staff at Alabama State as they responded to the call for participants. And state officials, in a state that was committed to segregation, exacted a heavy price on the college. The institution found itself even less well funded, a condition that in 1961 resulted in the loss of accreditation by SACS.
In 1962, after an interim president filled the post during Trenholm's illness, Levi Watkins assumed the presidency. Watkins set out to broaden the mission of the institution and to reclaim its SACS accreditation, the latter of which he achieved in 1966. In 1969, the State Board of Education, then the governing board of the institution, approved a name change; the institution became Alabama State University. It was during these years that the university began its continued path of steady growth and movement toward its current role as a comprehensive university. In 1975, in an act of tremendous importance for the university, the Legislature established an independent board of trustees for Alabama State University.
Watkins retired from the presidency in 1981 and was succeeded in turn by presidents Robert Randolph (1981-1983), Leon Howard (1983-1991), C. C. Baker (1991-1994) William H. Harris (2001), and Joe A. Lee (2001-Present). Their efforts have built upon the work of predecessors to position Alabama State University to take a leading role in preparing Alabamians for the 21st century.