In 1856, the Methodist Episcopal Church established Wilberforce University near Xenia, Ohio, to provide African Americans access to a college education. The university was the first private, historically black college formed in the United States. Its founders named the institution after William Wilberforce, a prominent eighteenth-century abolitionist. Numerous African-American Ohioans attended the school during its early years, but during the American Civil War, attendance declined as many students enlisted in the Union army. As a result of declining attendance, Wilberforce University closed in 1862.
In 1863, the African Methodist Episcopal Church acquired ownership of the university. Under the direction of Daniel Payne, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, John Mitchell, principal of a school in Cincinnati, and James Shorter, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor from Zanesville, Ohio, Wilberforce reopened its doors. The institution functioned as a private university serving the African-American community for the next twenty-four years. In 1887, the Ohio government began to provide Wilberforce with state funds to help finance the institution, bringing to an end the university’s exclusively private status for the time being. The state also helped the university create a Normal and Industrial Department that eventually evolved into Central State University.
Wilberforce University has experienced steady growth throughout the twentieth century. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the institution built a new residence hall, a student health center, a recreational and sports facility, and an administrative center. The university offers more than twenty degree programs and has numerous exchange programs with universities around the world. In 2003, enrollment was more than 1,200 students.
Wilberforce University is a unique institution located in a state rich in America’s private college tradition. Founded prior to the end of slavery in 1856, it is the nation’s oldest, private African-American university. For 147 years WU has, through sheer force of will, provided young African-American students with a solid educational experience.
Founded in 1856, Wilberforce University can trace its origin to a period of history before the Civil War, when the Ohio Underground Railroad was established as a means of escape for all those blacks who sought their freedom in the North from the yoke of slavery, one of the destination points of this railroad became Wilberforce University. As the Underground Railroad provided a route from physical bondage, the University was formed to provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance.
Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest private, historically black university, was named to honor the great 18th century abolitionist, William Wilberforce. Early in 1856, the Methodist Episcopal Church purchased property for the new institution at Tawawa Springs, near Xenia, Ohio. The school met with early success until the Civil War when enrollment and financial support dwindled. The original Wilberforce closed its doors in 1862. In March of the following year, Bishop Daniel A. Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal Church negotiated to purchase the University’s facilities. Payne, a member of the original 1856 corporation, secured the cooperation of John G. Mitchell, principal of the Eastern District Public School of Cincinnati, Ohio and James A. Shorter, pastor of the A.M.E. Church of Zanesville, Ohio. The property was soon turned over to them as agents of the church.
The University was newly incorporated on July 10, 1863. In 1887 the State of Ohio began to fund the University by establishing a combined normal and industrial department. This department later became the University’s sister institution, Central State University. Wilberforce also spawned another institution, Payne Theological Seminary. It was founded in 1891 as an outgrowth of the Theological Department at Wilberforce University.
Today, Wilberforce University continues to build on its sacred tradition. It is a four-year, fully accredited liberal arts institution. The 1990s were good years for the University, ushering in a period of growth and financial accountability. Wilberforce University offers some 20 fully accredited liberal arts concentrations to students in business, communications, computing and engineering sciences, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. It offers dual degree programs in architecture, aerospace, and nuclear engineering in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati. Other dual degree programs are available in electrical and mechanical engineering in cooperation with the University of Dayton, and in law with St. John’s University School of Law. The University’s Adult and Continuing Education Program, CLIMB (Credentials for Leadership in Management and Business), annually attracts some 200 nontraditional students interested in completing bachelor of science degrees in organizational management, health care administration and information technology.
During the last few years, five new facilities have been built and dedicated: a $2.1 million Wolfe Administration Building, which houses the administrative offices of the University; the $2.5 million Alumni Multiplex, which provides state-of-the-art academic, sports and recreational facilities for the campus and intercollegiate sports at the University; a $100,000 Student Health Center, which provides medical services from on-site physicians and health care providers; a $200,000 Communications Complex, which houses the Mass Media Communications Program, the campus television studio and campus newspaper production facilities; the new $4.5 million John L. Henderson Hall, capable of housing 110 students; and the new $2.5 million Louis Stokes Health and Wellness Center.
The University continues to attract an increasing number of student scholars who are active on the campus newspaper, the Forensic Team, Campus Ministry programs, the University Choir, the Jazz Band, the Men’s and Women’s Basketball Teams, WURS-Radio Station, Greek and honorary societies and student government.
Wilberforce University has made excellent progress in its programmatic and outreach thrust. It has a specialized Institute for African-American/Israel Exchange Program; Study Abroad programs in Egypt and Lancaster, England; a Caribbean student exchange program; articulation agreements with major two-year colleges across the country; and a 10-year student-faculty Collaboration Program with Antioch University.
The University has established a number of outreach programs, as well as national and international initiatives such as the expansion of its study abroad programs; the procurement in October 1998 of a $2.5 million Congressional appropriation grant to renovate the health care facility on campus and a $1 million grant to develop a new academic program focusing on computer science and engineering; a $1.3 million grant from NASA in 1992 to establish what is now a teaching collaboration and research center at Wilberforce University; the creation of The Minority Male Health Consortium through the University Family Life Center; and the development of the Wilberforce Intensive Summer Experience (WISE) Program that brings some 50 incoming freshmen students to campus each summer for an intensive five-week, major-focused program of study.
The brush stroke that completes the picture of Wilberforce University is its mandatory Cooperative Education Program. Wilberforce bears the distinction of being only one of two four-year institutions in the country to require internships as a requirement for graduation. Cooperative Education has been the heartbeat of academics at Wilberforce. The program has seen many others attempt to duplicate its success story, but to date no other has been able. Wilberforce University has been cited for its excellence in many publications such as Black Enterprise, Better Homes & Gardens, Career, and the Black Employment & Education Journal.