|Knoxville College is rooted in a mission school established in Knoxville in 1864 by R. J. Creswell of the United Presbyterian Church to educate the city's free blacks and freed slaves This school initially met in the First Baptist Church building (which at the time was located on Gay Street) before moving to a permanent facility in East Knoxville in 1866. In spite of general apathy from the city's leaders and threats from poor whites, the school's enrollment gradually grew to over 100.
In the 1870s, the church's Freedmen's Mission, which had established mission schools for freed slaves across the South, decided to refocus its efforts on building a larger, better-equipped school in Knoxville, in part due to stiff competition from other denominations in Nashville. In 1875, the church sold its East Knoxville property and purchased its current property, which at the time consisted of a hill that had been occupied by a Confederate battery during the Civil War. The school's first building, McKee Hall, named for the Reverend O.S. McKee, was completed in 1876, and the school opened in December of that year. Former governor William G. Brownlow and gubernatorial candidate William F. Yardley spoke at the opening ceremonies.
The Reverend J. S. McCulloch was named the school's first principal, and Eliza B. Wallace was named the school's principal of female students. The new school was primarily a normal school, which trained teachers, but also operated an academy for the education of local children. In 1877, the school was designated a college by the state, to the surprise of McCulloch, as few of the school's students were ready for a college-level curriculum. In 1890, the state designated the school the recipient of its Morrill Act funds for blacks, with which the school established mechanical and agricultural departments.
In 1901, Knoxville College finally received a charter from the State of Tennessee. Six years later, the school established the Eliza B. Wallace Hospital, which served a dual purpose of training nurses and tending to the health needs of the local black community. This proved invaluable during the city's Influenza outbreak of 1918. In 1913, John Henry Michael, the head of the school's mechanical department, designed the "Negro Building" for the National Conservation Exposition, which was held across town at Chilhowee Park. The building, which is no longer standing, was constructed with the help of Knoxville College students.
During World War I, Knoxville College students helped raise money for liberty bonds and the Red Cross. In the aftermath of the Riot of 1919, one of the city's worst racial episodes, the school's administration (comprising black and white members) staunchly defended the city's African American community, and praised its students' restraint. In 1925, Knoxville College students staged a month-long boycott of classes to protest the school's strict behavioral code, culminating in an all-night negotiating session between student leaders and the school's dean, Herbert Telford. Telford agreed to relax some rules, and allowed the creation of a student council.
In 1957, Knoxville College became one of the first group of predominantly black institutions admitted to full membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Throughout the summer of 1960, Knoxville College students engaged in a series of sit-ins to protest segregation at lunch counters in downtown Knoxville, eventually convincing most downtown businesses to end the practice. The school's charter was amended in 1962 to allow the admission of white students.
Accreditation loss and reorganization
Beginning in the 1970s, Knoxville College began to struggle financially, leading to a gradual decline. In 1997, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools withdrew Knoxville College's accreditation, and the school's financial situation became dire. As enrollment plummeted, the school's debt skyrocketed, and it was unable to pay its faculty or electric bills. In August 2005, the school's Board of Trustees fired the school's president, Barbara Hatton.
Following Hatton's removal, the school's alumni association embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign, aided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist, Johnnie Cannon, and the school has gradually rebounded. In January 2010, the school hired Dr. Horace A. Judson as interim president. Judson has implemented a new strategic plan with the following goals: 1. regain accreditation 2. achieve fiscal stability 3. develop academic program distinctiveness 4. develop a Department of Enrollment Management 5. develop a quality student-centered living and learning environment 6. establish new relationships and strengthen former ones among key constituents.