Despite opposition from local whites and without northern missionary help, leaders in the Gay Street Colored Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church in Nashville established Tennessee Manual Labor University, the only freedmen’s college in Tennessee founded by African Americans, in 1867. Located in several frame buildings in Ebenezer, a freedmen’s settlement on Murfreesboro Road, the school’s property included 136 acres of land under cultivation in corn, cotton, and sorghum. In January 1868 classes began for one hundred students.
The school’s principal founders, Peter and Samuel Lowery, were ministers in the Christian Church. Having studied under Tolbert Fanning, proprietor of Franklin College, they promoted his philosophy of practical education combined with Bible studies. The directors of Tennessee Manual Labor University, many of whom were officials in Nashville’s Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association, encouraged a similar curriculum consisting of agricultural science, mechanical arts, and manual labor courses. Basic liberal arts and Christian education rounded out the course of studies.
When local white churches refused their support, the school’s leaders commissioned Samuel Lowery and Daniel Wadkins, local African Americans, to tour the North and raise funds. Wadkins, “the father of Negro education” in Nashville, had operated classes for local free blacks from 1839 until 1856; he reopened his classes during Union occupation. Wadkins solicited a letter of support from Frederick Douglass, who said that former slaves had no alternatives to education. Despite the thousands of dollars raised for the Tennessee Manual Labor University, the school continued to experience financial problems. In 1872 Sampson W. Keeble tried unsuccessfully to gain support for legislation to provide public funds to support the school. The school closed in 1874, and the facilities quickly fell into disrepair before eventually disappearing.