Wilberforce University has an impressive history that sets it apart from other higher education institutions in the nation. It is the nation’s oldest private, historically black university-owned and operated by African Americans. Also, it was the first African American university to have a military training program. Over the course of its history, the university attracted leading black intellectuals, such as W.E. B. Dubois and Richard R. Wright, to its faculty. Wilberforce was built to support the abolitionist cause and to offer African Americans a college education. Many of its original students were the biracial children of Southern white slave owners. As the Underground Railroad provided a route from physical bondage, the University was formed to provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance.
Its roots trace back to its founding in 1856, a period of American history marred by people of African descent's physical bondage. It was also a period when African Americans' education was not only socially prohibited but was illegal. Wilberforce University was named for the great eighteenth-century abolitionist William Wilberforce, who said, “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible… So we will do them anyway.” This can-do spirit infused Wilberforce University with the strength to persevere, and the institution met with early success through 1862.
The outbreak of the Civil War forced the school to close its doors temporarily. This short setback did not deter the institution for long. In March 1863, Daniel A. Payne, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, negotiated to purchase the buildings, and the University was re-incorporated on July 10, 1863. Bishop Payne opened the doors of the university with six students and a debt of $10,000. He became the first person of African descent to be the President of an American Institution of higher learning. Wilberforce University prospered as young African Americans sought to educate themselves in ending the Civil War promised a new social order. On April 21, 1965, a headline in the New York Times announced, Wilberforce University Destroyed by Fire. Yet, Wilberforce recovered, endured, and continued to grow. Wilberforce University has demonstrated a formidable spirit of resilience and triumph throughout its existence and has never wavered from its sacred duty to educate and enrich its students. Learn more about Wilberforce