In 1881, the Methodist Episcopal Church founded Morristown College, a historically African American two-year institution of higher education, located in Morristown, the seat of Hamblen County, Tennessee. Prior to the civil rights movement, the college held the distinction of being one of only two institutions in East Tennessee for African Americans, the other being Knox College, founded in 1875. Although Morristown College was officially founded in 1881, Almyra H. Stearns, a New Jersey missionary, planted the seed for the school twelve years earlier when she moved south to start a small Freedman’s Bureau grammar school for recently emancipated blacks in the same general area where the later college stood. By 1881, the Methodist Episcopal Church decided to expand Stearns’s school into a seminary and normal school to supply ministers for black Methodist congregations and teachers for black schools.
The church appointed Judson S. Hill, a twenty-seven-year-old pastor and missionary from Trenton, New Jersey, to be the first president. Under Hill’s leadership, the college grew to over three hundred students by the turn of the century. To raise money for needed classroom buildings and dormitories, Hill secured funds from northern philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, the McCormicks of Chicago, and the Kelloggs of Battle Creek, Michigan. In addition, Hill solicited contributions from local merchants. Through his successes in fundraising, Hill was able to launch a major expansion and building program for the college that included the construction of dormitories, classrooms, administrative offices, and a dining facility. The school also acquired a three-hundred-acre dairy farm.
Hill’s improvements at Morristown College occurred within the larger context of the Jim Crow South. Most whites saw little need for African American education, especially higher education. Many northern and southern leaders, and even some black educators such as Booker T. Washington, tried to compromise with the white society by channeling African Americans into industrial and vocational education. Following this trend, Hill introduced industrial training and, by 1901, the college was renamed Morristown Normal and Industrial College. Some of the industrial courses offered for male students included woodworking, brick making and masonry, carpentry, iron molding, shoemaking, broom manufacturing, and agricultural training. For the females, domestic science classes included sewing, cooking, and serving techniques. The products created in these classes, such as brooms, were sold across the United States, and the profits were then given back to the college. For the remainder of Hill’s presidency, industrial education was the central focus of the Morristown curriculum, decreasing the earlier emphasis on teacher and clergy training.
Hill’s death in 1931, coupled with the onset of the Great Depression, brought dramatic changes to the college. After two years of searching, the Board of Schools of the Methodist Church selected Edward C. Paustin as the new president. During his three-year tenure, Paustin changed the direction of the school from industrial training to a more traditional liberal arts education. It is likely that the expense of maintaining the shops during a time of economic crisis drove some of these policies. Despite his efforts, Paustin was unable to turn the school around financially and he resigned in 1937. J. W. Haywood, Morristown’s first black president, succeeded Paustin and managed the college for seven years.
In 1944, Miller W. Boyd became the first Morristown College alumnus to become president of the institution. He sought funding for the school by establishing relationships with Morristown’s business community and instituting financial support from alumni. Through his efforts, enrollment rose to 435, the largest in the school’s history, and the college’s finances improved. In the fall of 1952, Boyd passed away and his wife, Mary Whitten, served as interim president for the remainder of the year. H. L. Dickason succeeded Whitten in 1953.
After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African Americans were able to attend previously all-white, state-supported colleges and universities. As a result, Morristown College found it increasingly difficult to compete with the larger public institutions that could offer cheaper tuition and received state and federal funds. Over the next twenty years, the college continued to struggle financially. In 1989, Knoxville College acquired Morristown and began operating it as a junior college. But Knoxville College also had its challenges, and it closed the Morristown College in the mid-1990s.
The historic campus of Morristown College is listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance and its important contributions to black education. Its significant architectural examples included Queen Anne and Georgian Revival styles. But the campus has been neglected, threatening the existence of these historic buildings.
Charles F. Bryan and JoVita Wells, “Morristown College: Education for Blacks in the Southern Highlands,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications (1980-81);
Edythe Steward Witten, The History of Morristown Normal and Industrial College (1943).