Knoxville College (1875- )

Wallace Hall, Knoxville College, Tennessee, May 29, 2010
Photo by Brian Stansberry (CC BY 3.0)

Knoxville College was founded in 1875 as a missionary effort of the United Presbyterian Church of North America in order to promote religious, moral, and educational leadership among freed men and women. Located north of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, in the city’s Mechanicsville community, the college is situated on 39 acres and houses 17 buildings on its campus. A historically black college (HBCU), Knoxville College is currently a private, church-related, four-year, coeducational, liberal arts institution, and is a United Negro College Fund member school.

Knoxville College originally opened as a normal school for training teachers. It was declared a college in 1877, and Dr. John Schouller McCulloch, a former chaplain in the Civil War, was named the College’s first president. After the erection of its first building, McKee Hall, in 1876, most of the other buildings on campus were constructed entirely by students, efforts which included making bricks for construction and in some cases, actually designing the buildings.

From 1895 to 1900, Knoxville College provided a range of teacher training courses, as well as classes in agriculture, industrial arts, and medicine. Like many institutions of the era, the College initially offered elementary and high school level classes as well. Beginning in 1902 the State of Tennessee provided financial support for the College’s agricultural and industrial departments.  The arrangement ended in 1912 and other areas of specialized training were gradually discontinued.  The College’s elementary department was dropped in 1927, and its high school academy was closed in 1931. Knoxville College shifted its educational focus to post-secondary education and became a liberal arts institution.

Throughout the 20th century the College faced periods of financial instability which often led to the near closing of the institution.  In 1997, during one of those periods, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) withdrew the institution’s accreditation.  Nonetheless the college continues to function and as of fall 2009 had approximately 400 students.  It has retained the support of its faculty and in the early 21st century its alumni mounted a major fundraising campaign that retired two million dollars of debt.

Knoxville College is currently a work college (where students work as an integral part of their educational process), and prides itself in guaranteeing financial resources for all of its students while preparing them for professional and responsible roles in society. Placing emphasis on its commitment to social justice and civic involvement, and highlighting a broad education in the arts and sciences, Knoxville College continues to be the primary educational institution for African Americans in East Tennessee.

Notable Knoxville College alumni include: Johnny L. Ford, Alabama State Democratic Representative and former mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama (1972-1996); the late Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither, former Florida A&M University head football coach (1945-1969), who carries one of the best winning records of any college football coach; and Vernon Jarrett, the first African American columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 1970, and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).  Jarrett is the father of Obama Administration advisor Valerie Jarrett.