Memphis's Lemoyne Owen College opened its doors in 1871 as LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School, but it traces its ancestry to the schools for ex-slaves organized by members of the American Missionary Association (AMA) during and after the Civil War. In 1870 Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a Pennsylvania doctor and abolitionist whose house had been a stop along the Underground Railway, donated twenty thousand dollars to the AMA for a Freedmen's School in Memphis. He instructed that “The institution should be so conducted as to give a good practical and scientific education.”
The school opened with fanfare on October 1, 1871, at 284 Orleans, with J. H. Barnum, who had formerly worked with the Freedmen's Bureau, as principal. The demand for black teachers was so great that many students left to take jobs before completing the full four-year course. There were three divisions: the normal school for teachers, a commercial department, and a music department. The first two diplomas were granted in 1876.
The school survived the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s, when three members of the small faculty died. In 1901 a high school was added to prepare students for the normal school course. In 1914 the school moved to its present location at 804 Walker Avenue, and Steele Hall, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was built. LeMoyne became a junior college in 1924, but the high school division continued until 1934, when the State of Tennessee chartered the school as LeMoyne College, a four-year institution granting the bachelor's degree.
Dr. Hollis Price became the first black president of the college in 1943. He was a founding member of the United Negro College Fund and the first black moderator of the United Church of Christ, into which the American Missionary Association had been absorbed.
In 1954 the Tennessee Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention opened a junior college on Vance Avenue named for the Reverend Samuel Augustus Owen. Owen was pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church adjacent to the LeMoyne campus, and a leader in his denomination and community. Owen Junior College merged with LeMoyne in 1968. The college maintains its ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ.
The college awarded its first Master of Science degrees in education in the spring of 1994. Today there are over twelve hundred students. Throughout its history, LeMoyne Owen College has educated teachers, doctors, judges, and leaders in the black community. Distinguished alumni include the mayor of Memphis, Dr. W. W. Herenton; author and Duke University professor Dr. C. Eric Lincoln; former president of Morehouse College, Dr. Hugh Gloster; author and Spelman College professor Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles; and Benjamin Hooks, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.