West Virginia State University is a public land-grant institution located at Institute, eight miles west of Charleston. It offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.
The university was founded as the West Virginia Colored Institute by the West Virginia Legislature on March 17, 1891. It was one of 17 black land-grant colleges established under the Second Morrill Act of 1890, which were supported (as were the previously established white land-grant colleges) by the sale of public lands owned by the United States. The first students enrolled in May 1892. Courses were offered in agriculture, mechanical arts, domestic science, teacher education, and military science. The first principal was J. Edwin Campbell.
The original goal of the Institute was to provide instruction in the trades, but the academic and normal (teacher education) curricula quickly became popular. Early campus life combined academic work, military-style discipline, manual labor, and compulsory religious services.
Byrd Prillerman, president from 1909 to 1919, expanded academic offerings and made graduation requirements more rigorous. In 1915, the legislature renamed the school the West Virginia Collegiate Institute and authorized it to grant college degrees. Over its first half-century, the institution grew from a secondary school into a national leader among public black colleges and universities. John W. Davis, a graduate of Morehouse College, became president after Prillerman and served from 1919 to 1953. Davis appointed Carter G. Woodson, noted black historian and founder of the Association for Study of Negro Life and History, as dean. Davis set out to recruit highly qualified faculty and improve the curriculum. A new administration building (now Ferrell Hall), with an auditorium, classrooms, library, and laboratories, was completed in 1925.
In 1927, the college was accredited by the North Central Association. It was the first of the original black land-grant colleges to be regionally accredited, and it holds the longest continuous NCA accreditation among West Virginia public colleges and universities. In recognition of this progress, the legislature in 1929 changed the name to West Virginia State College. By then the enrollment had grown to 1,000.
A historic struggle for civil rights lay ahead, bringing a great turning point in the history of the college. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional. The West Virginia Board of Education responded with a ruling that any student could attend any public school or institution of higher education regardless of race.
President William J. L. Wallace (1953–73) guided the college through desegregation. Wallace, a former professor of chemistry with degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia, and Cornell, opened the doors of West Virginia State College to white students. He faced an additional problem: enrollment had declined from a post-war high of 1,785 in 1947–48 to only 837 students by 1953–54. And in the face of desegregation, some said that West Virginia’s historically black colleges—West Virginia State College and Bluefield State College—should be closed. Wallace devised a plan to recruit local adult students, which involved expanding the evening program, and promoting harmonious race relations. Harrison Ferrell, dean from 1937 to 1966, was a key figure in the success of the strategic plan. Another key figure was Edwin D. Hoffman, the first white administrator, appointed dean when Ferrell retired in 1966.
Within 10 years, the college had undergone ‘‘integration in reverse’’ with white enrollment, mostly from Kanawha and contiguous counties, increasing to 78 percent of the student population while enrollment itself doubled. National news media spotlighted West Virginia State College as a model of peaceful racial integration.
Not all members of the college community accepted this change easily. Many worried that West Virginia State would lose all traces of its black history. Over time, as veteran faculty retired, it became difficult to recruit and retain black faculty. However, the college continues to enroll more black students (about 13 percent) than any other college in the state and in much higher proportion than the black population of the state. The faculty, staff, and administration are racially and culturally diverse. West Virginia State continued to educate students who were economically and educationally disadvantaged. Excellence in teaching and curricular innovation and reform distinguished the academic program.
A campus master plan, initiated by President Harold M. McNeill (1973–81) brought renovations and campus beautification. The community college component was established, and the faculty senate was created. Thomas W. Cole was president from 1982 to 1986. During his administration, a major industrial disaster at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, called attention to the neighboring Union Carbide plant at Institute. Cole negotiated with the chemical industry to ensure the safety of the campus and community. The Educational Network, a satellite uplink facility with an electronic classroom, began operation.
President Cole was succeeded in 1987 by Hazo W. Carter, Jr. During Carter’s administration, a North Central accreditation visit in 1992 resulted in the strongest possible approval, full accreditation for 10 years. West Virginia State College had lost its federal land-grant status in 1957, partly as a consequence of desegregation. After an 11-year effort on the part of President Carter and others, land-grant status was restored by Congress on October 22, 1999.
On April 7, 2004, Governor Bob Wise signed legislation renaming the college West Virginia State University, along with name changes to three other state colleges. This legislation also restructured the community college system, making the former West Virginia State Community and Technical College a separate institution. That institution now is Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College.
Many members of the faculty have been distinguished artists, scholars, and scientists, including musicians Harrison Ferrell, Clarence Cameron White, and P. Ahmed Williams; actor Fannin S. Belcher; artist Della Brown Taylor Hardman; poet John Matheus; the literary scholars Naomi Garrett and Sophia Nelson; and chemist Percy Julian. An outstanding alumnus is the Reverend Leon Sullivan, architect of the anti-apartheid Sullivan Principles.
In fall 2009, the headcount enrollment of West Virginia State University was 4,003. While the great majority of students are now white, the university remains a center of black history and culture in West Virginia. This is the legacy of an institution that takes pride in its origins as a historically black college, while it carries into a new century its mission as a ‘‘Living Laboratory of Human Relations.’’
Brian O. Hemphill became president of the university on July 1, 2012, succeeding Hazo Carter.
This Article was written by Arline R. Thorn
Last Revised on July 10, 2012
Withrow, Dolly. From the Grove to the Stars: West Virginia State College 1891-1991. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1991.
Harlan, John C. History of West Virginia State College. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1968.
Duran, Elizabeth C. & James A. Duran Jr. Integration in Reverse at West Virginia State College. West Virginia History, (1984).