A Concise History of Wofford, 1854- to the present
On July 4, 1851, the future Methodist Bishop William Wightman came to the tiny courthouse village of Spartanburg, S.C. As more than 4,000 people looked on, he made the keynote address while local Masons laid the cornerstone for Wofford College.
A distinguished professor and journalist as well as a clergyman, Wightman stressed that the new institution would pattern itself after neither the South’s then-elitist public universities nor the narrowly sectarian colleges sponsored by some denominations. Instead, he argued, “It is impossible to conceive of greater benefits— to the individual or to society— than those embraced in the gift of a liberal education, combining moral principle ... with the enlightened and cultivated understanding which is the product of thorough scholarship.”
Wofford College stands more than 160 years later as one of a handful of pre-Civil War American colleges operating continuously on its original campus. It has offered carefully selected students a respected academic program, tempered with concern for the individual. It has respected the virtues of continuity and heritage while responding with energy, optimism and excitement to the challenges of a changing world.
Wofford College came about because of the vision and generosity of Benjamin Wofford, who was born in rural Spartanburg County on October 19, 1780. Sometime during the great frontier revivals of the early 19th century, he joined the Methodist church and served as a circuit rider (itinerant preacher) for several years. In 1807, he married Anna Todd and settled down on her family’s prosperous farm on the Tyger River. From this happy but childless marriage, which ended with Anna’s death in 1835, Mr. Wofford acquired the beginnings of his fortune. At the age of 56, the widower married a much younger woman from Virginia, Maria Barron. They moved to a home on Spartanburg’s courthouse square, where he could concentrate on investments in finance and manufacturing. It was there that Benjamin Wofford died on December 2, 1850, leaving a bequest of $100,000 to “establish a college of literary, classical and scientific education to be located in my native district and to be under the control and management of the Methodist Church of my native state.” It proved to be one of the largest financial contributions made to American higher education prior to the Civil War. Mr. Wofford’s will was approved in solemn form on March 14, 1851, and the college charter from the South Carolina General Assembly is dated December 16, 1851.
Trustees quickly acquired the necessary land and retained one of the South’s leading architects, Edward C. Jones of Charleston, to lay out the campus. The original structures included a president’s home (demolished early in the 20th century); four faculty homes (still in use today for various purposes); and the Main Building, which remains one of the nation’s outstanding examples of “Italianate” or “Tuscan Villa” architecture.
Construction began in the summer of 1852 under the supervision of Ephraim Clayton of Asheville, N.C. Skilled African-American carpenters executed uniquely beautiful woodwork, including a pulpit and pews for the chapel. The college bell arrived from the Meneely Foundry in West Troy, N.Y., and it continues to toll from the west tower of “Old Main.” The exterior of the building today is true to the original design, but the interior has been modernized and renovated three times — in the early 1900s, in the 1960s, and in 2007.
In the autumn of 1854, three faculty members and seven students took up their work and the first Wofford degree was awarded in 1856 to Samuel Dibble, a future United States congressman.
After an administration that was highly successful both educationally and financially, President William Wightman resigned in 1859 and was replaced by the Rev. Albert M. Shipp, a respected scholar who was immediately confronted with a devastating Civil War. Shipp remained at the college through the Reconstruction period.
President James H. Carlisle dominated Wofford’s history from the end of the Civil War until 1900. A member of the original faculty and then president of the college from 1875 through 1902, he initially taught mathematics and astronomy, but his real strength was his ability to develop alumni of character, one student at a time. Three generations of graduates remembered individual visits with Carlisle in his campus home, now occupied by the dean of students. To them, he was “The Doctor,” “Wofford’s spiritual endowment,” and “the most distinguished South Carolinian of his day.”
Many lasting traditions of Wofford life date from Carlisle’s administration. Four surviving chapters of national social fraternities (Kappa Alpha, 1869; Sigma Alpha Epsilon, 1885; Kappa Sigma, 1891; and Pi Kappa Alpha, 1894) were chartered on the campus. Northern soldiers in Spartanburg during Reconstruction apparently introduced college students to baseball, and Wofford and Furman University played South Carolina’s first intercollegiate football game in 1889. That same year, a group of students organized one of the South’s earliest literary magazines, The Journal.
In 1895, delegates from 10 of the leading higher education institutions across the Southeast met in Atlanta to form the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The organization was conceived by Vanderbilt’s Chancellor James H. Kirkland (Wofford Class of 1877), who hoped to challenge peer campuses to attain national standards of academic excellence. Trinity College in Durham, N.C., which later emerged as Duke University under the presidential leadership of Wofford alumni John C. Kilgo and William Preston Few, also sent delegates. Wofford was represented by two of its young faculty members, A.G. “Knotty” Rembert (class of 1884) and Henry Nelson Snyder. Perhaps it the Wofford community’s determination to meet the standards for accreditation that later inspired Snyder to turn down an appointment to the faculty at Stanford University to become Carlisle’s successor as president.
The first decades of Snyder’s long administration (1902-1942) were a time of tremendous progress. Main Building finally got electric lights and steam heat. Four attractive red-brick buildings were added to the campus — the Whitefoord Smith Library (now the Daniel Building); the John B. Cleveland Science Hall; Andrews Field House; and Carlisle Hall, a large dormitory. Wofford also began to attract faculty members who were publishing scholarly books in their academic specialties. Faculty memnber David Duncan Wallace was the preeminent South Carolina historian of the day, and German professor James A. “Graveyard” Chiles published a widely used textbook. Chiles and his Wofford students founded the national honorary society for German studies, Delta Phi Alpha.
Although eight women graduated from Wofford in the classes of 1901-1904, the average enrollment in the early 20th century was about 400 men. The cornerstone of residential campus life was an unwritten honor code, for decades administered with stern-but-fair paternalism by the dean of the college, A. Mason DuPré. Modern student government began in 1909, and the first issue of a campus newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, appeared in 1915. Both intramural and intercollegiate sports were popular, with the baseball teams achieving the most prestige. The 1909 team adopted a pit bull terrier (“Jack”), and he proved to be the inspiration for a permanent mascot.
In spite of all this progress and the wide respect he earned in national higher education circles, Snyder was able make little headway in strengthening Wofford’s endowment, which was valued at less than $1 million. The college was painfully dependent on its annual support from the Methodist Church, which amounted to about one-fourth of the operating budget. Despite the hard times brought on by the Great Depression, by the end of the Snyder administration the college was debt-free and its academic reputation was untarnished.
Wofford earned a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1941, the first time such recognition had been extended to an independent college in South Carolina. Soon after the nation plunged into World War II. Wofford graduates served in the military in large numbers, and Wofford’s enrollment was so drastically reduced that the Army took over the campus on February 22, 1943, to offer accelerated academic instruction for Air Corps officers. The faculty and 96 remaining Wofford students did their work at Spartanburg Junior College or at Converse. After the war, under the stimulus of the G.I. Bill of Rights, enrollment suddenly shot up to 720 during 1947-48.
The only alumnus to serve as president of Wofford, Dr. Walter K. Greene ’03, served through an administration (1942-1951) that today is remembered primarily as a golden age for Terrier athletics.
During the presidential administrations of Francis Pendleton Gaines (1952-1957) and Charles F. Marsh (1958-1968), the Wofford community laid the foundations to serve the “Baby Boom” generation that would result in much larger college population.
Administration and finances needed the most immediate attention, and Gaines was fortunate to persuade Spartanburg textile executive Roger Milliken to join the board of trustees. He encouraged and helped finance reforms in the business office including “forward funding,” a procedure where gift income for operations from a given calendar year (for example, 1958) was set aside in interest-bearing accounts and spent during the subsequent academic year (1959-60).
Wofford began a series of important building projects that included a science building, the Sandor Teszler Library, and the first campus life center. Leaving the Italianate exterior intact, the college modernized the interior of Main Building. Four new residence halls built during this period took pioneering steps away from the prevailing barracks design and gave occupants a measure of privacy and comfort. Seven fraternity lodges were built on campus to unify and improve Greek life. The new buildings and improved financial management made it possible for the college to expand its enrollment to 1,000 men.
To teach this larger student body, the college worked hard to recruit outstanding faculty. Some legendary professors, such as Lewis P. Jones ’38 in the history department, arrived within a few years after the war. Philip S. Covington, who served as the college’s academic dean during the 1950s and 1960s, displayed a remarkable knack for spotting great teachers.
When President Paul Hardin III arrived on campus to begin his administration in 1968, he found few radicals and revolutionaries among the students, but he felt that major changes in residence life policies and programming were overdue. A new “Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities” guaranteed academic and political freedom for students and established a judicial process regulating campus behavior. Another committee drew up a constitution for a Campus Union that reorganized and sought to empower student government.
The college implemented curricular reforms to encourage faculty creativity and give students more choices. The 4-1-4 calendar and the Interim term permitted a student to spend the month of January working on a “project” of special interest. The Interim became a popular feature of the Wofford experience, particularly for career-related internships, independent research, and foreign travel. Wofford’s first-year humanities seminars, pioneered in the 1970s, were copied at institutions large and small.
After observing a token but troubled period of racial desegregation at flagship universities across the South, the Wofford Board of Trustees in the spring of 1964 announced that applicants for admission henceforth would be considered without regard to race. Wofford became one of the first independent colleges across the “Cotton Belt” to take such a step voluntarily.
Albert W. Gray of Spartanburg was one of several African-American men admitted to Wofford after the trustees’ announcement, and he enrolled without incident in the fall of 1964. In general, while there were unquestionably some awkward and unpleasant moments, black students in those early years of desegregation found the atmosphere at Wofford to be better than the climate at large public universities. This positive beginning made Wofford a college of choice for many African-Americans as the process of desegregating public schools across the region picked up momentum.
Residential coeducation at Wofford became a reality with the Class of 1980, and by mid-90s, women made up more than 45 percent of the student body. From the first, Wofford women were high achievers, winning more than their proportional share of academic honors and exercising effective leadership in campus organizations of every kind.
In 1972, Joab M. Lesesne Jr. replaced Hardin as Wofford’s president, serving until he retired at the end of the 1999-2000 academic year. By 1999 Wofford’s endowment was approximately $90 million, thanks in part to a $13 million bequest from the estate of Mrs. Charles Daniel. The downtown campus doubled in size, and new structures included the Campus Life Building with its Tony White Theater and Benjamin Johnson Arena; the $6 million Franklin W. Olin Building, the Papadopoulos Building; the Roger Milliken Science Center; and three new fully networked residence halls. The college received national recognition as a “higher education best buy” and came to be listed in nearly all of the selective colleges guides.
In the mid 1990’s, Wofford carefully moved step-by-step from NAIA to membership in the Southern Conference, NCAA Division I. Meanwhile, the construction of the Richardson Physical Activities Building, Gibbs Stadium, and the Reeves Tennis Center allowed Spartanburg and Wofford to become the summer training camp home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, founded and owned by Jerry Richardson ’59.
When he became Wofford’s 10th president in 2000, Dr. Benjamin B. Dunlap challenged the faculty to “make connections,” combining its core curriculum with advanced and highly innovative opportunities for research, internships, and study abroad. Open Doors studies conducted by the Institute of International Education for Students consistently ranked Wofford in the top 10 of all colleges and universities in the nation in the percentage of students who studied and traveled abroad for credit. Faculty earned national recognition in the development of multi-disciplinary learning communities. “The Novel Experience” for first-year students was designed to emphasize the importance of making connections—across disciplines and between town and gown—beginning in the first week of a student’s Wofford career. As an outward and visible equivalent of such intellectual adventures, the Wofford Village created an apartment-style housing option to renew personal relationships among seniors while further connecting them with lifestyles they planned to take up as they graduated and moved out into the world.
For more about the history of Wofford College, visit the Archives.