Swift Memorial College

Swift Memorial College was a historically black college that operated in East Tennessee from 1883 to 1952. It was founded in Rogersville by the Reverend William H. Franklin, a graduate of Maryville College and the African American pastor of a local Presbyterian congregation. Like many early black colleges, the institution focused on high school and normal school (teacher education) curricula.

In 1901 Maryville College trustees transferred $25,000, reportedly a quarter of the college’s endowment, to Swift Memorial College. That year a new Tennessee Jim Crow law had forced biracial Maryville College to expel African American students, but the trustees, to their credit, sought to continue aiding African American access to higher education, being only too familiar with the efforts of the state’s governors and legislators to minimize that access. The 1870 Tennessee constitution (Article XI, Section 12) decreed that  “no school established or aided under this section shall allow white and negro [sic] children to be received as scholars together in the same school,” and in 1901 the General Assembly extended this Jim Crow law to private institutions. They did this at a time when Tennessee was expending $200,000 annually for Confederate pensions, $250,000 for the George Peabody Normal College for whites, and allocating all federal land-grant monies to the University of Tennessee, while providing less than $7,000 for scholarships to educate a few black students at the private Knoxville College, even though blacks constituted 25.6 percent of Tennessee’s scholastic population. Maryville College, however, had grown out of the antislavery movement in Tennessee and was among the first American colleges to admit African American students, including George Erskine, a former slave, who was sponsored by the Manumission Society of Tennessee. Erskine became a Presbyterian minister upon completing his studies. William J. Hale, the first president of Tennessee A & I State College (later Tennessee State University), was also a product of Maryville College.

A similar problem had occurred in neighboring Kentucky when that state passed its racially discriminatory Day School Law, but the U.S. Supreme Court in Berea College v. Kentucky (1908) refused to interfere in state segregation of schools or to overturn its earlier Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896), which established the “separate but equal” principle; the court would continue to avoid the explosive issue of segregated schools until the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Berea College, which also originated out of the antislavery movement, expelled its black students but helped to establish Lincoln Institute for Negroes in Louisville.

The Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen supported Swift Memorial College, including the building of dormitories in 1903, and the minority institution began a four-year college curriculum in 1904, with support from the Presbyterian Church, other donors, and Maryville College. By 1909 Swift Memorial had 208 students, 10 teachers, and a budget of $12,000. The institution prospered until the Reverend Franklin retired in 1926. In the 1920s, when some 240 historically black colleges and schools were reevaluated as to their fitness for collegiate accreditation, the Tennessee State Department of Education and the U.S. Bureau of Education recommended that Swift Memorial could only achieve junior-college status. From 1929 onward, Swift Memorial Junior College continued expanding its facilities. However, the Presbyterian Board of Missions ended its support in 1952, and after the Brown decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, Maryville College again admitted black students  and continued to “work for justice” and encourage interactaction “with diverse people, perspectives, and ideas.” Swift Memorial Junior College closed in 1955. The buildings were converted to community use and a school.

Suggested Reading

Linda T. Wynn, “Swift Memorial College (1883–1955),” in Profiles of African-Americans in Tennessee, edited by Bobby L. Lovett and Linda T. Wynn (1996).

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Swift Memorial College
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 18, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018