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Created as Bluefield Colored Institute by the legislature in 1895, Bluefield State Universitye was the result of the demographic transformation produced by the industrialization of southern West Virginia. Thousands of African-Americans moved into mining and railroad jobs in Mercer, McDowell, Raleigh, and Fayette counties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Republican politicians successfully courted their vote by promising prompt attention to issues such as higher education for Black West Virginians.

The school was situated on four acres in Bluefield, the largest city in the coalfields, within 100 miles of 70 percent of the Mountain State’s Black population. Storer College of Harpers Ferry supplied part of the first faculty to Bluefield, including Professor Hamilton Hatter, an African-American graduate of Bates College, who became the first administrator or principal. School officially began in January 1897 with 40 students.

In 1906, Principal Hatter was replaced by his assistant, Robert Page Sims, who led during three crucial decades as the school matured and grew in size, curriculum, and prominence. Enrollment climbed from 107 in 1910 to 281 in 1923 to 338 in 1925. In 1929, the state legislature changed the school’s name to Bluefield Institute. And in 1931, the curriculum changes resulted in the adoption of the name Bluefield State Teachers College.

Between 1920 and 1927, the three buildings on campus were renovated, and a new classroom building was finished in 1930. Additional acreage was acquired, bringing the grounds to 22 acres.

Sims deserves much of the credit for the expansion of Bluefield State from a ‘‘high graded school’’ to a four-year institution with wide regional influence. It became a center of African-American culture, featuring appearances by poet Langston Hughes, historian John Hope Franklin, boxer Joe Louis, and musicians Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. Twice Bluefield State’s Big Blues won national Negro College Athletic Association football championships in the late 1920s. Graduates of the school include Elizabeth Drewry, class of 1938, who became the first African-American woman elected to the state legislature. Other alumni include Negro Leagues baseball player Ted Bond, musician Maceo Pinkard, and educator and civic activist Memphis Tennessee Garrison.

In 1936, Sims stepped down, replaced by Henry Lake Dickason, who led the school for 16 years and presided over continued expansion and broadening of programs and physical facilities. New buildings were constructed, including a gymnasium in 1938. State lawmakers approved a bill in 1943 authorizing the name change to Bluefield State College. In 1947, Bluefield State was fully accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. Two years later, full accreditation was granted by the North Central Association.

In 1952, when Dickason retired, significant changes were under way in southern West Virginia. Dickason’s successors, Gregory W. Whiting (1952–53 and 1957–58) and Stephen J. Wright (1953–57), presided over the college until Leroy Allen was named to the presidency in 1958. Allen, replaced in 1965, was to be the last Black president of Bluefield State during the 20th century. After an interim term by E. J. Scrafford (1965–66), Wendell G. Hardway became president in 1966.

After the mid-century, racial desegregation and the changing population of the coalfields transformed the small residential Black college into a different institution. The changes began in the late 1950s. The school shifted toward the role of a two-year and four-year commuter college for southern West Virginia, and those commuters were increasingly White. By 1963, the college had grown as its vocational training attracted hundreds of students, and enrollment was slightly less than 800 students. The last major physical expansion occurred in the 1960s, including the building of a new student union building in 1963 and a new gymnasium, finished in 1966.

Bluefield State was not untouched by the turbulence of the Vietnam War, urban riots, and general unrest of the 1960s. Tensions grew as only White presidents were appointed by state authorities. A 1968 bombing rocked the physical education building, and the administration closed the campus to the public and hired armed Pinkerton guards to patrol the grounds. President Hardway ordered the dorms closed, and they never reopened, ending Bluefield State’s years as a historically Black residential college.

Hardway, before leaving in 1973, approved a merger between Bluefield State and Concord College (now Concord University), forming a dual-campus regional college. The experiment failed, tensions flared, and the schools were separated once again. Billy Coffindaffer, who had become president in 1973, left the office in 1975. James Rowley served an interim term, and J. Wade Gilley assumed the presidency in 1976. Gilley left in 1978, and William H. Brothers served a brief period, before Jerold O. Dugger took over, serving for 10 years. Dugger in 1981 ended the football program, drawing protest from the alumni. Amid controversy, Dugger resigned in 1988, and after a brief interim by Chester L. Foster, he was succeeded by Greg Adkins, who served until 1993. Leonard Nelson was named acting president, and in June 1993 Robert Moore became president. He was replaced by Albert Walker in 2002, the first African-American president since 1965. Marsha Krotseng was chosen as the new president of the college in 2012. She resigned in December 2018 following criticism over declining enrollment, and Robin C. Capehart, former president of West Liberty State College (now West Liberty University), was named interim president in January 2019 and full-time president in September.

Redirecting the curriculum toward workforce development programs and two-year vocational education helped enrollment grow to nearly 2,500 in the mid-1980s, and distance-learning programs and new centers in Beckley, Welch, and Lewisburg spread Bluefield State’s service across southern West Virginia. Its 1995 centennial celebration highlighted Bluefield State College’s historic mission with the theme ‘‘Strong Past, Dynamic Future.’’ Community college functions were separated from Bluefield State upon the creation of New River Community and Technical College in 2004. Headcount enrollment in fall 2015 was 1,482, but had dropped to 1,212 for 2018 and only 950 full-time students in fall 2019. By fall 2022, enrollment had bounced back to 1,306. It now has one off-site campus, in Beckley.

In December 2021, the Higher Education Policy Commission allowed Bluefield State to start offering master’s degrees. In May 2022, the school’s name was changed to Bluefield State University.

In November 2023, Capehart announced his retirement at the end of the calendar year. Shortly thereafter, results were released of a scathing report by the Higher Learning Commission—the school’s accrediting institution—strongly criticizing Capehart and the university’s board of governors for allowing the president to disband the faculty senate and change academic requirements without input from the faculty. Capehart had previously been forced out as president of West Liberty University due to alleged financial improprieties.

Bluefield State University website

This Article was written by C. Stuart McGehee

Last Revised on November 28, 2023


McGehee, C. Stuart & Frank Wilson. A Centennial History of Bluefield State College. Tazewell, VA: Clinch Valley Press, 1995.

Upward through the Years: Semi-Centennial Bulletin. Bluefield State College, 1945.

Wilson, Frank E. Historical Highlights. Columbus: Continental Printing.

Cite This Article

McGehee, C. Stuart "Bluefield State University." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 28 November 2023. Web. 20 July 2024.


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