THINKING ABOUT A COLLEGE: WOFFORD COLLEGE, 1851-1902
When the American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Wofford College was less than 10 years old. The college’s founder and its early generations of faculty, students and trustees were products of antebellum South Carolina and reflected the Old South’s culture and values.
Wofford College rose from the vision and generosity of a complex individual, the Rev. Benjamin Wofford. Wofford was born in rural Spartanburg County on October 19, 1780. During the great frontier revivals of the early 19th century, Wofford joined the Methodist Church and became a circuit rider for several years. Wofford first preached in Kentucky in the Methodist Church’s western conference. When the western conference decided that it would not allow its ministers to own slaves, Wofford, who owned at least two slaves at the time, left Kentucky and returned to preach in South Carolina, which had no restrictions on clergy owning slaves.
In 1807, Wofford married Anna Todd, the daughter and only child of the wealthiest man in Spartanburg District, and settled on her family’s prosperous farm on the Tyger River. When Anna’s father, Thomas Todd, died, Wofford began managing the Todd family’s business concerns, marking the beginnings of his fortune. Among the property the Woffords inherited from the Todd estate were 11 slaves. Wofford, who joined the South Carolina Methodist Conference in 1816, left the itinerant ministry to manage the Todd family businesses full-time after his mother-in-law's death, though he retained his status as an ordained clergyman. After Anna’s death in 1835, the 56-year-old widower married 33-year-old Maria Barron from east Tennessee. They moved to a home on Spartanburg’s courthouse square, where he could concentrate on investments in finance and manufacturing.
At the end of his life, Benjamin Wofford sought to provide for the moral and intellectual development of South Carolina’s next generation of young males. When he died on December 2, 1850, Wofford left a bequest of $100,000 to “establish a college for literary, classical and scientific education.” The college was to be located in Wofford’s native district under the control and management of the Methodist Church in South Carolina. According to Wofford family tradition, Anna Todd Wofford had inspired the idea of founding a college. It proved to be one of the largest financial contributions made to American higher education prior to the Civil War. Maria Barron Wofford had not been informed of her husband’s decision to endow the college, but she decided not to contest his will. The first faculty later celebrated her as a co-founder.
The trustees named in Wofford’s will met at Spartanburg’s Central Methodist Church and agreed that the college should be constructed in the village. The college charter from the South Carolina General Assembly is dated December 16, 1851. As Wofford’s first president, the Rev. William M. Wightman promised at the laying of college cornerstone on July 4, 1851, that the institution soon to rise upon Spartanburg’s northern border would “combine Temple and Academy” … “sacred at once to religion and letters.” His vow quickly became a reality. Wofford College grew, promoting a classical-style liberal arts education and demanding moral rectitude of its students. Its antebellum graduates were expected to epitomize southern manhood and become future leaders of the region.
The first students enrolled on August 1, 1854, after meeting admissions requirements that included competency in Latin and Greek. During their years at Wofford, they attended classes in chemistry, moral and natural philosophy, geology and political economy, as well as continuing to do extensive reading in the great literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Students founded two literary societies, within which they honed their oratorical, debating and parliamentary skills in weekly meetings. These societies became an important part of college life, organizing many of the ceremonies, starting the first libraries, collecting paintings and debating literary, political and philosophical questions. By graduation day, a Wofford senior was comfortably familiar with the intellectual world of the mid-19th century, and while he did not possess a major, he was prepared to read law, enter the ministry, do business or return to manage his family’s plantation.
All of Wofford’s original faculty members and many of its trustees owned slaves. The first decade of Wofford College’s existence coincided with a great boom in cotton production, which further solidified slaveholding as a social and economic system. Slave ownership was a sign of status, and most upper-class and middle-class households in Spartanburg had at least one or two enslaved people who worked at a variety of domestic chores. Wofford’s first faculty and trustees were either from these classes or inherited enslaved persons as part of their wives’ dowries. Enslaved men worked on the crews that raised Main Building and built the original campus houses. As poet Nikky Finney reminded the Wofford community in 2007, these men were also “thinking men,” uneducated, yet exceptionally talented artisans whose labors helped to realize architect Edward C. Jones and builder Ephraim Clayton’s vision for Wofford.
Bondspeople also labored in professors’ homes or in the boarding houses where many students lodged. The first faculty members lived on campus, but it is unclear where their enslaved persons lived. Some may have resided inside the faculty homes as butlers or maids, while others may have lived in outbuildings in what would later become known as the “Back of the College” neighborhood. Still others may have had their labor rented out to households in the area. At least one enslaved man did grounds work for the college since Professor Warren DuPré was twice paid for “his man’s” labors in 1855. Most students came from slave-holding families, too; their wealth built upon a foundation of forced labor and agricultural production. Students would have encountered slaves in the village and in all areas where manual labor was performed. Perhaps some students brought enslaved valets to Spartanburg with them.
How should we understand Wofford’s first generation’s ownership of enslaved persons? Historian Kenneth Stampp famously described slavery as “the peculiar institution.” “Peculiarity” offers an important insight into thinking about the 19th-century South and slavery. Slavery was inescapably dehumanizing since to be a slave meant that one had no rights to self-determination and that one could be brutalized or bought and sold at an enslaver’s whim. Within the peculiar institution, however, one sees a broad range of behaviors from slave owners. For example, Wofford’s second president, Albert M. Shipp, taught his enslaved man Tobias Booker Hartwell how to read, an action that was illegal at the time, and laid a foundation for the talented Hartwell’s success after the Civil War. But Shipp was also an ardent secessionist. Warren DuPré, originally from the Charleston area and the owner of the largest number of slaves among Wofford’s original faculty, was one of the signatories on a letter asking South Carolina’s governor to show mercy to a enslaved woman with mental challenges who set fire to her abusive, alcoholic owner’s barn to stop his brutal beatings. James Carlisle purchased a slave in 1857 and, as a delegate to South Carolina’s secession convention, signed the Ordinance of Secession. Carlisle voted against secession during the convention, however, and later denounced Jim Crow segregation. Watson Boone Duncan’s 1916 Carlisle Memorial Volume describes Carlisle as “an unfailing friend of the [N]egroes. He once introduced Booker T. Washington to a Spartanburg audience. He frequently voiced his disapproval of ‘Jim Crow’ cars on the ground of their injustice to the [N]egro race. His counsel on all such problems breathed a spirit of Christian brotherhood.” At his death, the newspapers commented that the city’s Black community turned out to honor him. There are no easy answers, and it is impossible to know how Wofford faculty interacted with enslaved people on an everyday basis. We also cannot know the thoughts and feelings of people like Tobe Hartwell and Nancy, Carlisle’s slave, beyond the certainty that the human spirit desires freedom. We simply know that the imperfect men who founded Wofford College lived in a peculiar and unjust world.
The Civil War brought the first great threat to the college’s survival. Hot-headed undergraduates were eager to enlist in the Confederate army, even when advised by the governor that they would do better to stay at their books. By the 1862 Commencement ceremony, only eight students remained enrolled. Wofford remained open mostly to teach preparatory school students who were too young for college. During the war, Wofford’s trustees invested in Confederate bonds, squandering the endowment. Yet, somehow, the college did not close.
Wofford’s tiny faculty, led after 1859 by President Albert M. Shipp, saved the college from the fate of many other southern institutions of higher education. Their commitment to the college and the community, along with timely financial assistance from the Methodist Conference, ensured Wofford’s survival during Reconstruction. Though buildings were dilapidated and professors barely paid, Wofford welcomed back both Confederate veterans and a new generation of scholars who had to think about a radically different post-war world. It was an uneasy time, especially as the upcountry region became notorious for the Ku Klux Klan’s political and racial terrorism, which led to congressional investigations and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871. Since the Klan was a secret organization, it is almost impossible to know the involvement, if any, of persons affiliated with Wofford.
In 1875, Shipp left Wofford to become a professor at the new Vanderbilt University in Nashville. A popular campus legend held that he quarreled with his successor in office, Dr. James H. Carlisle, and would not even look back to wave as he was driven away from campus. The story — while impossible to verify — hints at a moment of great change for Wofford. Carlisle, who had joined the original faculty as a young man in 1854, was about to preside over a series of changes that more conservative educators found difficult to accept.
Carlisle’s long tenure as president, from 1875 to 1902, saw the type of curriculum Wofford provided become less focused on the classics. A legendary teacher whose deeply personal style of moral education legions of graduates remembered fondly, Carlisle understood that the South had changed. A new style of coursework was necessary to create the young men who would be its leaders. The system had to become more practical. Latin and Greek continued, but modern languages and more scientific subjects joined the curriculum, along with literature, philosophy and religion. New, youthful faculty, often vigorously intent on curriculum reform, joined professors who had been on campus since the college opened. The transition was not always smooth, and Carlisle noted that many students were unprepared for the academic demands they would be facing in college. His solution was the creation of the Wofford Fitting School in 1887, a preparatory school that helped remedy educational deficiencies and prepared young men for Wofford’s modernized subjects. Carlisle also modified a long-standing tradition when he gave his address at Commencement 1876 in English rather than Latin.
The college also saw modest growth in the student body and significant changes in campus life. Graduating classes in the 1870s averaged about 14 students, and 131 students were enrolled in 1880. The literary societies continued, and in 1872, the trustees made membership in one of them mandatory. The societies started the first student publication, a literary magazine called the Wofford College Journal, in January 1889. Its first editor later became a United States senator. Not every student was wealthy, making low-cost alternatives to food and board imperative. At first the college was nonresidential and all students had to secure independent accommodations in Spartanburg. The majority of Wofford students continued to live with families in the village, and sometimes boarded with their professors. Some students, however, petitioned to live in unused rooms in Main Building. Brothers Zach T. and A.S. Whiteside, both of the class of 1877, were the first students to find ways to prepare meals on campus. Zach’s in the Mungo Student Center is named in Zach Whiteside’s honor. Later, a group of students organized the college’s first dining room and hired a cook, a local Black man named Jim Gillespy, to prepare their meals inexpensively. By 1883, enough students were eating on campus that the college needed to move them to a larger room.
The first Greek-letter fraternity arrived in 1869, and others followed in the 1870s. Many students were feverishly loyal to their brothers. In 1891, one Wofford man recorded his drunken shenanigans, boasting of midweek intoxication. Not every professor was beloved: a popular student cheer ended with the phrase “Hang the faculty!” Students also began to engage in athletic pursuits; some of them played baseball with some of the Federal soldiers stationed in Spartanburg during Reconstruction. During the late 19th century, that sport was quite popular on campus. Students began playing football in the late 1880s, and Wofford played Furman in December 1889 in the first recorded intercollegiate football game in South Carolina. Wofford won that game, 5 goals to 1. Students also had a gymnastics team. From 1897 to 1904 the college admitted nine female day students in an attempt to explore coeducation. The young women felt isolated and unwelcome, and the venture was soon ended. By the turn of the century, Wofford’s young men had embraced a collegiate lifestyle whose contours would be familiar to today’s students.
Through it all, Carlisle’s guiding spirit remained determined to see that his charges remembered Wofford’s motto and understood that they were expected to rise to a higher level in both their education and their personal morality. Despite the changes that had instituted written exams and different types of degrees, Carlisle remained convinced that each student should be educated “because he is a human being … with inlets of joy, with possibilities of effort and action that no trade or calling can satisfy or exhaust.” “Visiting with the Doctor” left a profound impact upon the young people who studied at Wofford before Carlisle’s retirement in 1902.
Carlisle modelled behaviors he hoped his students would imitate, including engagement with the formerly enslaved. In 1886, Reverend Joseph Charles Price, a minister in the AME Church and Livingstone College’s founder and first president, spoke at a Spartanburg temperance rally. According to the December 8, 1866, Hartford Courant, the Wofford students in the audience were so impressed by Price that they invited him to speak at Wofford. His lecture would not be on temperance, however; instead, Price offered a 45-minute lecture entitled “Future of the Negro.” The Hartford Courant described Price’s talk as focused on his racial pride and his insistence on Black southerners’ importance to the region’s future. Historian Andrew Myers writes that Price was invited back to campus “at the end of the decade” and received a “gold-headed cane” from the college as a parting gift. It would be difficult to confirm this, but the January 2, 1897, issue of the Indianapolis Freeman, a national Black newspaper, featured a letter suggesting that Price’s visit to Wofford may have been the first time a Black speaker was invited to a southern white college.
Carlisle’s death brought an end to the college’s first era. Wofford College was born out of both hope and injustice, built upon an evangelical spirit but funded by the labor of the enslaved. It had faltered but not fallen during the Civil War, and its survival was a testament to the United Methodist Church and the love it engendered in its faculty and the community. Wofford’s faculty, trustees, students, alumni and friends built strong relationships that helped the college persevere through bad times and thrive during the good. Thought and necessity required the post-war college to confront and adapt to social, economic and technological change — the New South needed more science and less Latin. Women attended for a brief time; greater socio-economic diversity emerged. At the turn of the century, Wofford began to realize the challenges academia faces even into the 21st century, still it retained its hopefulness and its moral center in its dedicated president and innovative faculty.