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Roger Williams University

Nashville, Tennessee



Bobby L. Lovett’s The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930 has a very good section on Roger Williams University. Tennessee Magazine and Tennessee Encyclopedia are among other online sources with historical sketches of the University.  Most helpful are the photos of R.W.U. students and campus building from the Library of Congress.  Internet Archive has the 1884-85 school catalog.  The image of the normal class (above) is from the Library of Congress.


Collegiate Class of 1899 (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division) accessed 11-12-2017


The Nashville Normal and Theological Institute grew out of classes conducted in his home by Reverend Daniel W. Phillips of the American Baptist Home Mission Society.  Supported by Northern whites, the Institute provided basic instruction for African-American ministers and teachers, accepting any who could read, write, and do arithmetic at the fourth-grade level.  By 1871 the Institute offered a full college curriculum.  In 1883 the school was incorporated as Roger Williams University with several African-American faculty members and trustees.


The 1884-85 catalog shows four departments of the university—normal, collegiate, theological and music.   There were 248 students—35 theological students, 187 normal students, 25 collegiate students, and 37 preparatory students.  Most out-of-state students came from Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Indian Territory.  The teaching staff numbered 13.




Students could be members of Literary Debating Society which met each Friday evening.  Other organizations included a Y.M.C.A., two missionary societies, a teachers’ association and a temperance society.


According to the catalog, all students were required to take a class in study of the scriptures and to attend daily chapel and weekly church services.  They were required to do 25 hours of work each month “for the benefit of the institution.”  Apparently all students of both sexes were required to receive industrial training.


In 1909 the American Baptist Home Mission Society closed the college and sold the property.  However, the African American Baptist society raised money to reopen the college at a Nashville location closer to the African-American neighborhoods.  The new school had 150 students, but was never strong financially.  In 1929 it moved to Memphis, where it merged with Howe Institute, forming part of today’s Lemoyne-Owen College .

Bricks and Mortar

The school moved from the home of Reverend Phillips to the basement of First Colored Baptist Mission, and to the Union army barracks, before settling in a two story frame building on Cedar and Spruce streets.  In 1874 Nashville Normal and Theological Institute was able to purchase 30 acres of the Robert Gordon’s farm on Hillsboro Road for a new campus.    The 1884-85 catalog describes two buildings.  Mansion House, part of the Gordon property, was enlarged to measure 48 x 80 feet.  It served as the girls’ dormitory and contained apartments for faculty.  Centennial Hall, next door, measured 49 x 185 feet.  Like Mansion House, it was four floors above a basement with a mansard roof.  The ground floor contained school rooms, while the upper three floors were dormitory rooms. 




This location was in prime real estate so that the Society was besieged by offers to purchase.  In January of 1905 a mysterious fire destroyed Mansion House.  In May of that year another fire destroyed Centennial Hall.  In 1911 the A.B.H.M.S. sold the property—part to George Peabody College for Teachers and part to real estate developers.


African American Baptist leaders used part of the sale price to purchase 12 acres on White’s Creek Pike to rebuild the school.  In 1918 American Baptist College shared the campus, adding a building of their own.  American Baptist College has occupied the campus alone since 1937.

Mansion House is to the left; Centennial Hall is to the right. (Documenting the American South<>) accessed 11-12-2017


Tennessee Magazine notes that R.W.U. students attended football games at Vanderbilt University and supported the team and that Vanderbilt coaches and players helped coach the R.W.U. football team.   College Football Data Warehouse shows little football activity at R.W.U.—only nine games over 28 years.  In games against Wilberforce (OH), Arkansas Baptist, West Kentucky Industrial, and neighbors Fisk, Knoxville, and Tennessee Industrial, R.W.U. had no victories.  However, football records for African-American schools are notoriously incomplete according to Dr. Roger Saylor.

Note: Images are used in accordance with their “terms of use” as I understand those terms.  Recopying or republishing these images may be restricted or forbidden.

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