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Wilberforce University

Wilberforce University is a private, coed, liberal arts historically black university located in Wilberforce, Ohio. Affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans.


1055 N Bickett Rd


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Additional Information

College Type
Religious Affiliation
African Methodist Episcopal Church
Campus Housing
Green Gold
Assoc. Independent Institutions

College History


Located three miles (5 km) from Xenia, Ohio in the southwestern part of the state, the founding of Wilberforce University was a collaboration among leaders of the Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. They planned to promote classical education and teacher training for black youth. Among the first 24 members of the Board of Trustees in 1855 were Bishop Daniel A. Payne, Rev. Lewis Woodson and Messrs. Ishmael Keith and Alfred Anderson, all of the AME Church. Also on the Board were Salmon P. Chase, then Governor of Ohio and a strong supporter of abolition; a member of the Ohio State Legislature, and other Methodist leaders from the white community. They named the college after the British abolitionist and statesman, William Wilberforce. As a base for the college, the Cincinnati Conference bought a hotel, cottages and 54 acres (220,000 m2) of a resort property, named Tawawa Springs after a Shawnee word for "clear or golden water". European Americans had founded the health resort because of the springs, which historically the Native Americans had long used. Because of its location, the resort attracted summer people from both Cincinnati and the South. Some people in this area of abolitionist sentiment were shocked when wealthy Southern planters arrived at the resort with their entourages of enslaved or free African-American mistresses and mixed-race "natural" (illegitimate) children. Given migration patterns, this was also an area where numerous free people of color settled, many having moved across the Ohio River from the South to find better work and living conditions. In addition, some southern states prohibited free blacks from settling. Xenia had quite a large free black population, as did other towns in southern Ohio, such as Chillicothe, Yellow Springs and Zanesville. Free blacks and anti-slavery white supporters used houses in Xenia as stations on the Underground Railroad in the years before the war. Wilberforce College also supported freedom-seeking slaves. The college opened for classes in 1856, and by 1858 its trustees selected Rev. Richard S. Rust as the first President. By 1860 the university had more than 200 students. Most were from the South rather than Ohio or northern states. They were the "natural" mixed-race sons and daughters of wealthy white planters and their African-American mistresses. The fathers paid for the education denied their children in the South. They were among the fathers who did not abandon their mixed-race children but provided them with the social capital of education and sometimes property. The outbreak of the Civil War threatened the college's finances. Not only were Methodist church resources diverted to support the war, but the southern planters withdrew their children, and no more paying students came from the South. The college closed temporarily in 1862 when the Cincinnati Methodist Church was unable to fund it fully. Led by Bishop Daniel A. Payne, in 1863 the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) decided to buy the college to ensure its survival; they paid the cost of its debt. Founders were Bishop Payne, who was selected as its first President; James A. Shorter, pastor of the AME Church in Zanesville and future bishop; and Dr. John G. Mitchell, principal of the Eastern District Public School of Cincinnati. Payne was the first African American to become a college president in the United States. When an arson fire damaged some of the buildings in 1865, Salmon P. Chase, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Dr. Charles Avery from Pittsburgh each contributed $10,000 to rebuild the college. Mary E. Monroe, another white supporter, contributed $4200. The US Congress approved a $25,000 grant for the college, which raised additional monies privately from a wide range of donors. In 1888 the AME Church came to an agreement with the Republican-dominated state legislature that brought considerable financial support and political patronage to the college. It negotiated contemporary pressures to emphasize industrial education for many black youth by accommodating both that and the classical education. As an act of political patronage, the state legislature established a commercial, normal and industrial (CNI) department at Wilberforce College. While this created complications for administration and questions about the mission of the college, in the near term it brought tens of thousands of dollars annually in state aid to the campus. Each state legislator could award an annual scholarship to the CNI department at Wilberforce, enabling hundreds of African American students to attend classes. The state-funded students could complete liberal arts at the college, and students at Wilberforce could also take "industrial" classes. By the mid-1890s, the college also admitted students from South Africa, as part of the AME Church's mission to Africa. The church helped support such students with scholarships, as well as arranging board with local families. The college became a center of black cultural and intellectual life in southwestern Ohio. Because the area did not receive many European immigrants, blacks had more opportunities at diverse work. Xenia and nearby towns developed a professional black elite. Generations of leaders: teachers, ministers, doctors, politicians and college administrators, and later men and women of all occupations, have been educated at the university. In the 19th century, Bishop Payne established his dream, a theological seminary, which was named in his honor. Top-ranking scholars taught at the college, including W.E.B. Du Bois, the philologist William S. Scarborough, Edward Clarke, and John G. Mitchell, dean of the seminary. In 1894 Lieutenant Charles Young, the third black graduate of West Point and then the only African-American commissioned officer in the US Army, led the newly established military science department. Additional leading scholars taught at the college in the early 20th century, such as Theophilus Gould Steward, a politician, theologian and missionary; and the sociologist Richard R. Wright, Jr., the first African American to earn a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a future AME bishop and became president of Wilberforce. These men were also prominent in the American Negro Academy, founded in 1897 to support the work of scholars, writers and other intellectuals. In 1969 the organization was revived as the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1941, the normal/industrial department was developed with a four-year curriculum. In 1947, this section was split from the university and given independent status. It was renamed Central State College in 1951. With further development, in 1965 it achieved university status as Central State University. Growth of Wilberforce University after the mid-20th century led to construction of a new campus in 1967, located one mile (1.6 km) away. In 1974, the area was devastated by part of the Super Outbreak tornado storm, which destroyed much of the city of Xenia and the old campus of Wilberforce. Older campus buildings still in use include the Carnegie Library, built in 1909 with matching funds from the Carnegie Foundation, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places; Shorter Hall, built in 1922; and the Charles Leander Hill Gymnasium, built in 1958. The former residence of Charles Young near Wilberforce was designated a National Historic Landmark, in recognition of his significant and groundbreaking career in the US Army. In the 1970s, the university established the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, to provide exhibits and outreach to the region. It is now operated by the Ohio Historical Society. The university supports the national Association of African American Museums, to provide support and professional guidance especially to smaller museums across the country.

College Specialty


Wilberforce University's mission is to help our students identify and prepare for their respective purposes in life as global citizens by imparting knowledge, instilling discipline and inspiring lifelong learning through critical inquiry, personal and spiritual development and practical application.



Victoria Gray Adams pioneering civil rights activist Regina M. Anderson playwright, librarian, and member of the Harlem Renaissance Helen Elsie Austin 1938 U.S. Foreign Service Officer Myron (Tiny) Bradshaw American jazz and rhythm and blues bandleader, singer, pianist, and drummer Hallie Quinn Brown 1873 educator, writer and activist Richard H. Cain minister, abolitionist, and United States Representative from South Carolina from 1873�1875 and 1877-1879 Charity Adams Earley first African American woman to be an officer in the Women�s Army Auxiliary Corps and was the commanding officer of the first battalion of African American women to serve overseas during WWII. Floyd H. Flake U.S. Congressman, Wilberforce President Frank Foster American musician; member of the Count Basie Orchestra John R. Fox Recipient of the Medal of Honor Raymond V. Haysbert business executive and civil rights leader Gilbert Haven Jones 1902 the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from a German university, and also the first African American with a Ph.D. to teach psychology in the United States Leon Jordan 1932 politician and civil rights activist, who is considered one of the most influential African-Americans in the history of Kansas City, Missouri James H. McGee city commissioner and first African-American mayor of Dayton, Ohio Arnett "Ace" Mumford 1924 former college football coach at Southern University from 1936 to 1961. He also coached at Jarvis Christian College, Bishop College, Texas College. Member of College Football Hall of Fame Demetrius Newton Civil right attorney Bill Powell owner and designer of Clearview Golf Club, the first integrated golf course in America and the first owned and designed by an African-American Leontyne Price Opera singer and first African-American prima donna of the Metropolitan Opera George Russell American jazz composer and theorist William Grant Still composer and conductor: the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, and the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company Theophilus Gould Steward 1881 U.S. Army chaplain and Buffalo Soldier Ossian Sweet African-American doctor notable for self-defense in 1925 against a white mob's attempt to force him out of his Detroit neighborhood, and acquittal at trial. Ben Webster American jazz musician William Julius Wilson American sociologist and Harvard University professor Milton Wright 1926 Economist Mark Wilson 1982 entrepreneur