William J. Hale was president of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College from its founding date (1912) until his retirement in August 1943. Under his leadership Tennessee A&I State College became a notable African American institution and one of Tennessee's best known colleges. By 1944 the college produced the third highest number of graduates among historically African American universities.
Hale was born in Marion County on September 26, 1874, the oldest child of four boys and two girls. The impoverished Hale went to work at an early age but managed to save enough money while working in Dayton, Tennessee, to enroll at biracial Maryville College. After attending for several terms, Hale accepted teaching positions in Coulterville and Retro before becoming the principal of Chattanooga's East First Street Grammar School.
When the Tennessee General Assembly authorized the construction of a normal school for African Americans, Hale led an effort to raise seventy-one thousand dollars to have the institution located in Chattanooga. Black leaders in Nashville won the bid for Davidson County, but Hale was selected as the principal of the new Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes. He arrived in Nashville in January 1911 to supervise construction of the facilities and develop the school's curricula. Hale handpicked the thirteen faculty members from such notable institutions as Fisk, Atlanta, and Howard Universities. Tennessee A&I opened its doors on June 19, 1912, and two days later enrolled 247 students for the summer term.
A shrewd but practical man, Hale expanded the school despite the limited resources provided by a reluctant general assembly and State Board of Education. In 1916 he received only 40 percent of the school's funds from the state, with the rest coming from federal sources, tuition, fees, and gifts from African Americans. Hale staged annual visitations and dinners to persuade the all-white legislature to continue to vote appropriations and to allay misgivings about African American education. Faculty members loaned their cars to drive legislators to the campus, where they saw uniformed female students and men in dress shirts. Students engaged in manual labor, performed farm tasks, and cleaned dormitories under the watchful eyes of the visitors. Faculty members served as hosts at the dinners legislators attended, standing around the room like waiters while their guests ate. At the end of the dinners, Hale presented each legislator with a freshly dressed turkey from the school's farm.
Hale knew firsthand the deep racism held by most white officials in Tennessee. A soft-spoken mulatto with wavy brown hair streaked with white, a strong chin, and cold gray eyes, Hale looked like a “white” man. He often endured the insults directed against blacks by state officials before they realized that the pale-skinned Hale was African American. When visiting the state office, Hale refused to be seated. He stood, hat in hand, until called into the office of the superintendent of education, a silent protest against a past insult by the office secretary. Authoritative and sarcastic, Hale required that faculty members and students observe a curfew and refrain from political activity. He demanded that faculty members sign their paychecks (face down), before counting out their pay in cash, according to verbal contracts. He used the surplus money (as many black public college presidents did) to carry the school forward. When state officials discovered his activities and realized that Tennessee A&I had a funding surplus, they demanded Hale's resignation in August 1943.
Hale married one of his faculty members, Harriet Hodgkins of Nashville, and their three children graduated from Tennessee A&I. Hale served as a member of the local Citizens Bank board. He assumed leadership roles in several civic and social organizations, including the Tennessee Commission for Interracial Cooperation (1919-21). In 1930 he became the first Tennessean to receive the Harmon Foundation's Gold Award for outstanding achievement in education. Hale completed additional studies at Columbia University and received honorary doctoral degrees from Wilberforce University (1936) and Howard University (1939). W. J. Hale died in New York on October 5, 1944.