Founded as a ‘Colored Institute,’ W.Va. State University Celebrates 120th Anniversary

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on October 11, 2010.

INSTITUTE, W.Va. – West Virginia State University, which first opened its doors in March 1891, is celebrating its 120th academic year this 2010-2011 school yearThe Institute school, which now has more than 5,200 students and more than 80 academic programs, has experienced four name changes, a changing student population and an ever-growing faculty and curriculum.

Charles Byers, West Virginia State’s vice president of academic affairs and a 1968 alumnus, said he considers the university the Mountain State’s “best-kept secret.”

“I think citizens of West Virginia probably do not understand the unique history of West Virginia State,” he said. “We’re trying to let the people of West Virginia know about this institution.”

The West Virginia Legislature founded the university on March 17, 1891, as the West Virginia Colored Institute. Under the Morrill Act of 1890, the federal government granted $10,000 to cover a land purchase and construction costs and $3,000 for faculty salaries.

The 1890 act was an expansion of the original Morrill Act of 1862, aimed at forming higher learning institutions focused on science, engineering and agriculture.

Byers said then-governor Aretas B. Fleming considered several sites when scouting land for the school. He considered a parcel of land in South Charleston where the Tech Park now stands and property in the St. Albans’ College Hill area.

Fleming eventually settled on the Institute site. It was then known as “Farm,” because it was level and featured easy rail and river access for students and faculty, Byers said.

State’s main entrance was on the Kanawha River back then because the school could only be reached via train or boat.

“Route 25 wasn’t there. Eventually, it was a dirt road,” he said.

The university began with one building, Fleming Hall, named for the governor who helped found the school. It opened its doors for students in May 1892, offering agriculture, horticulture, mechanical arts and domestic science courses. Tuition was free, but the school charged a $1-a-month enrollment fee and $7 a month for board.

When the school’s first full term started in the fall of 1892, the Colored Institute had 40 students and enough faculty members to count on one hand. The school also added teacher training classes and military courses that year and hosted a lecture by Booker T. Washington.

By 1897, the school’s student enrollment reached 100.

The West Virginia Colored Institute became the West Virginia Collegiate Institute in 1915 when it gained the authority to grant college degrees. The curriculum had expanded this point to include mathematics, chemistry, French, English language and literature.

The school had 28 faculty members at this point, but 16 of them did not have college degrees. In 1919, newly appointed president John W. Davis immediately set a course to improve that ratio.

Byers said he recruited faculty members with doctorates from prestigious universities around the country, including Columbia University, New York University and the University of Chicago. The school became “nationally known as the place to go for Blacks,” he said.

“This was like Yale for Black schools,” Byers said.

By 1928, all but two faculty members had a college degree. Fourteen had graduate degrees and eight more were pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees.

The school gained its North Central Association accreditation in 1927, making it one of only four Black colleges at the time to become accredited by a regional association and the first of the 17 Black land-grant colleges to become accredited.

The institute also was the first of West Virginia’s state colleges to be accredited by the North Central Association and has held that accreditation longer than any four-year institution in the Mountain State, Byers said.

“We’ve always taken high academic standards to heart,” he said.

The state Legislature again changed the West Virginia Collegiate Institute’s name in 1929, to West Virginia State College. A 1933 bill sought to change letterhead again by renaming State “Booker T. Washington State College,” in tribute to the Malden-born educator. Faculty, students, staff and alumni fought that move out of pride for their college’s existing name.

President William Wallace took over for Davis, then in his 34th year of service, in 1953. Just a year later the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, requiring all public schools be desegregated.

West Virginia decided the ruling applied to colleges and universities and ordered all state higher education institutions to accept “any qualified student.”

About 400 White students enrolled at State for its 1954-1955 school year. Byers said that, by 1959, the school had more White students than Black students. Just 10 years after integrating, the college’s student population was only 22 percent Black.

It was during this period of transition that State adopted its motto, “a living laboratory of human relations.” Unlike other desegregated schools, particularly those in the South, Byers said State’s integration went smoothly.

“(Wallace) did that very successfully. We did not have any problems at this school,” he said. “We didn’t have any problems at all.”

The school lost its land-grant status during this time, however, ceding its programs and funding to West Virginia University. The federal government established WVU a part of the Morrill Act of 1862.

State did not get that status back fully until 1999, thanks to the work of current president Hazo Carter and help from the late Senator Robert Byrd.

Carter, who became the college’s president in 1987, set about regaining the land-grant status almost as soon as he took office, petitioning state and national lawmakers for help.

The state Legislature voted to restore the land-grant designation in 1991, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to give the school a small appropriation in 1994. But Byrd introduced an amendment to 1999’s agricultural appropriations bill restoring the college’s full land-grant status.

Congress passed that bill, and in 2001 West Virginia State College again became a land-grant institution.

Carter established the Gus R. Douglass Land Grant Institute in March 2000, in honor of West Virginia’s longtime commissioner of agriculture.

Byers said the institute’s budget started at $50,000 but now sits at about $9 million, with more than 100 full- and part-time employees. It also has three separate divisions: the West Virginia State University Extension; the West Virginia State University Agricultural and Environmental Research Station; and The Center for the Advancement of Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics.

Carter has helped the school make other strides, too. On April 7, 2004, Gov. Bob Wise signed Senate Bill 448, which turned West Virginia State, Concord, Fairmont and Shepherd into universities.

The school debuted two master’s programs—media studies and biotechnology—that year and plans to debut master’s programs in law enforcement and entrepreneurship next fall.

Byers pointed out that Carter is only the ninth president of the university in its 120 academic years.

While other universities switch presidents out every five years, Byers said Carter and his predecessors have committed to sticking with the college and seeing their visions come true. He said faculty and students relish that stability, and that’s what made West Virginia State successful.

“That’s one thing we’ve been blessed with at this school,” he said.