Wilberforce University is the oldest private historically black university in the United States. It is located just outside of Xenia in Greene County, Ohio. The school is named after William Wilberforce, a 19th Century English politician who wrote and spoke against slavery. William Wilberforce was instrumental in passing through Parliament the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished that practice in the British Colonies. In 1856, the University was planned as a major weapon in the war against slavery, arming the former slave with the power of education.
During the time of the Underground Railroad, many of
the towns in southern Ohio were home to blacks who had come north to escape
slavery. Cincinnati served as a major stop along the route to freedom. Some
former slaves continued north to Michigan and Canada, but many settled in the
rich farmland surrounding the towns of Zanesville, Chillicothe, Dayton, and
Xenia. This area was also home to a significant number of abolitionist Whites
who helped the former slaves by providing work and housing.
With the support of then Governor Salmon Chase,
members of the Cincinnati Council of the African Methodist Episcopal Church purchased
land and buildings at Tanawa Springs, a health resort just outside of Xenia.
Among the founding members were Bishop Daniel Payne, Reverend Lewis Woodson,
Ishmael Keith, and Alfred Anderson. They envisioned creating a haven where
black intellectualism could thrive and worked to ensure its future by providing
a solid education to those who would seek it.
A large percentage of the early students were the
mixed-race children of white planters and their black female partners. At the
time, education would be denied to the offspring of such unions in the South,
but in the Free State of Ohio, this opportunity could be provided. During the
period of the Civil War, many of these southern students were pulled out of
school. This led to financial difficulties for the college, which was forced to
close its doors temporarily. When Bishop Payne was able to gather the capital,
he purchased the school himself and was able to reopen. At the end of the war,
some of the campus fell victim to arson upon the assassination of President
Lincoln in April, 1865. Those responsible remain unknown. The college began
receiving state funding in 1887. Since then, Wilberforce has been able to
create two additional institutions: Central State University and the Payne
The existence of the University led directly to the
development of a prominent black professional community in Xenia and has
produced a large number of graduates who have gone on to successful careers in
diverse fields. The University has become a major point of interest on the
landscape of black culture and played a role in the 20th Century’s
Civil Rights Movement. W. E. B. Du Bois was among the faculty for a time. The
1960s saw expansion and construction. During the Super Outbreak in the spring
of 1974, however, much of the original campus was destroyed by the powerful
tornado that also wiped out half of Xenia.
While Wilberforce University remains a relatively
small school with an enrollment of less than 1000 students, the institution
holds tightly to the vision of the founders and is committed to developing the
students’ academic needs, social responsibility, and Christian principles and
values. Although traditionally designed for the black student, Wilberforce
University welcomes people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who wish to
learn and grow.