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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 members. However, the college continues to enroll more Black students (about 14 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: first named West Virginia State Community and, in 2009, renamed Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College. In 2014, this school was merged into BridgeValley 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. Wendell Smith, a 1937 graduate, was a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier who helped influence Branch Rickey’s selection of Jackie Robinson to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier; he also was one of the first Black journalists to become a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Brian O. Hemphill became president of the university on July 1, 2012, succeeding Hazo Carter, and serving until July 1, 2016. During Hemphill’s tenure, West Virginia State University increased fundraising, improved retention rates, increased degree completion, and increased enrollment of transfer and out-of-state students. Following a national search, Dr. Anthony Jenkins, a senior associate vice president at the University of Central Florida, served as the next president of State (2016-2020). Jenkins successfully advocated for funding increases, including getting a state dollar to match every federal land-grant dollar it receives. On September 1, 2020, Dr. Nicole Pride, vice provost for academic strategy and operations at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, became the 12th president, and first female president since the school was founded in 1891. In July 2021, following a letter from many of Pride’s cabinet members asking the board to remove and investigate the president, Pride resigned. Since 2021, Ericke Cage has been the school’s president.

In October 2019 the university received permission to add a nursing school. Since 2016 the number of post-high-school students enrolled has dropped, but an increase in high school students taking college classes brought full-time equivalent student enrollment to just under 2,400 for 2019-2020.

West Virginia State University has announced that in May 2024, it will launch its first doctoral degree program—in leadership studies.

In fall 2022, the total enrollment was 3,785. While only about 14 percent of these students are Black, 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 on its new mission as a ‘‘Living Laboratory of Human Relations.’’

West Virginia State University website

This Article was written by Arline R. Thorn

Last Revised on February 15, 2024


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).

Thorn, Arline R. "West Virginia State College: A Brief History." Institute West Virginia State College Foundation, 1988.

Cite This Article

Thorn, Arline R. "West Virginia State University." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 15 February 2024. Web. 22 May 2024.


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