Roger Williams University, the oldest university in Nashville, burned down by two mysterious fires, then forced relocate to Memphis, TN –now known as Lemoyne Owen College. In its former location now stands Vanderbilt University School of Education, where a commemorative plaque bears the story of its little known existence…know your history!
The History of a HBCU, Roger Williams University ~ Lemoyne Owen College
The Nashville Normal and Theological Institute had been founded in 1866 by the Reverend Daniel W. Phillips, a white abolitionist. Later financed by the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS), the Institute changed its name to Roger Williams University in 1883. Although it was located next to Vanderbilt University, the pressures of white streetcar development, as well as devastation by fire challenged its existence. On January 24, 1905, a fire destroyed Centennial Hall. After successfully fighting to reopen, the school was struck by another fire of unknown origin, which leveled Mansion House on May 22,1905. The ABHMS closed the school and withdrew its support, selling twenty-five acres of the Roger Williams campus along with its buildings to the George Peabody College.
In November 1910, the ABHMS sold the remaining acreage to white real estate developers, who established a segregated residential subdivision. The final blow to the viability of the school was struck with the National Baptist Convention’s 1915 split into the National Baptist Convention of America, and the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., both of which began fundraising for their own #black seminaries. Finally, in December 1928, Roger Williams’ teachers and students moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they united with the Howe Institute. Howe had been founded in 1888 as the Memphis Baptist and Normal Institute for West Tennessee Baptists. In 1902, the Reverend Dr. Thomas O. Fuller, the pastor of the First Colored Baptist Church in Memphis, assumed leadership of the Howe Bible and Normal Institute. Howe sold its buildings and merged with LeMoyne College in 1937.23
LeMoyne Normal Institute, Professor L.T. Larsen, Principal, Memphis, Tennessee, 1908-1909. Photographer unknown. Lemoyne-Owen College. Full Record.
Made possible through a $20,000 gift by philanthropist Francis Julius LeMoyne to the American Missionary Association, the LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School opened in Memphis in 1871. It moved to its present site at 807 Walker Avenue in 1914, rose to junior college status in 1924, and became LeMoyne College ten years later. After absorbing Howe Institute several decades earlier, LeMoyne College merged with S.A. Owen Junior College in 1968.
While the closure of Roger Williams left an educational void in Nashville, the idea for the founding of American Baptist Theological Seminary can be traced to the 1890s. However, the black National Baptist Convention did not secure the support of the white Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) until 1913. Opened on September 14, 1924, as a black preacher-training school, the American Baptist Theological Seminary struggled under the presidencies of William T. Amiger (1924-25) and Sutton E. Griggs (1925-26) but found a permanent home on White’s Creek Pike in 1934.24
As the progenitors of black higher education in Tennessee, both native and freedmen’s schools helped to shape the culture of the seven remaining HBCUs in operation in the state. In the decades between their founding and the 1930s, they were transformed from schools for blacks to black schools. In doing so, they functioned not only as educational centers but also served — and continue to serve — as social change agents and cultural preservationists.