The Allen University story begins seven years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and five years after the end of the American Civil War. The end of that conflict saw significant expansion of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the former Confederate States. Allen University grew out of the church’s desire to educate newly freed slaves and to ensure a well-trained clergy for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Right Revered John Mifflin Brown and the assembled clergy of the Columbia District of the AME Church, on July 29, 1870, agreed to raise funds to purchase a 150-acre farm in Cokesbury, South Carolina. They did so in hopes of locating a school there that would be the “FIRST INSTITUTION OF LEARNING CONSECRATED TO NEGRO SELF ACTIVITY AND NEGRO MANHOOD,” in the state of South Carolina.
The Reverend Simon Miller led a five-person committee in the actual development of a school on that land. Reverend Miller, who served as Presiding Elder of the Abbeville District of the AME Church and as founding past of Miller Chapel AME Church in Newberry, saw that hope become reality in the establishment of Payne Institute. The school was named in honor of Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, a native South Carolinian, the founder of Wilberfoce University and the driving force behind the quest for an educated clergy and laity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Payne Institute came into being in spite on objections of white South Carolinians who had a fear of educated African-Americans, and of black and white missionaries from the northern states, who questioned the ability of the AME Church to undertake such an educational enterprise. Through God’s grace, the Reverend Miller presented the deed for the land and buildings to the Columbia Annual Conference of the AME Church in 1871, making Payne Institute the property of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The next significant development in the history of Allen University came during the Episcopal leadership of the Right Reverend William Fisher Dickerson. Bishop Dickerson saw the opportunity to create a stronger and larger institution by relocating Payne Institute to Columbia, the centrally located capitol city of South Carolina and led the way in doing so in 1880. Property was purchased in Columbia for $6,000, and Payne Institute was relocated and renamed Allen University. The University is the only institution of higher learning named for the Right Reverend Richard Allen, the first consecrated Bishop and acknowledged founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen University is the first such institution in South Carolina founded by African-Americans with the purpose of educating African-Americans.
The prophetic nature of Bishop Dickerson’s vision for the University was affirmed by the University’s rapid growth in Columbia. Within nine years of Allen University’s establishment and with the leadership of Presidents J.C. Walters and J.W. Morris, the institution produced 75 graduates. Twelve earned baccalaureate degrees, 15 were graduated with degrees in law, and 48 finished the Normal (teaching) Department. A Theological Department was established and named in honor of Bishop Dickerson.
Allen University’s initial mission included the education of students at all levels and ages. The University offered not only degrees in law, theology, and arts, but included elementary and high school courses of study. One could at that time enter Allen University as a child in the first grade and leave prepared to teach, preach, or plead in the courts. The grammar school was discontinued in the mid-twenties, and the high school was closed after the graduation of the class of 1933. The University only accepted those who had completed high school for the 1929-33 school term.
Allen University has consistently met the challenges of a changing state and nation. The University managed to keep its doors open during the Great Depression and added the Departments of Science and Languages in 1930. The University remained opened during World War II, and welcomed an influx of veterans pursuing college studies following the war. The Departments of Humanities, Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion were added to the existing curricula in 1945. The campus saw major physical expansion from 1940 to 1950, with the construction and acquisition of several buildings. Students of that era and of the sixties have fond memories of a competitive football team, spirited band, and a concert choir that toured nationally as recruiters and fundraisers for the University. Faculty and students of the University were soldiers in the modern battle for civil rights in the fifties and sixties.
The productivity of Allen University is reflected in the accomplishments of the graduates of the institution. Alumni of Allen University have distinguished themselves in almost every field of endeavor. Allen Alumni have a history of forging pathways to greatness in their chosen profession by becoming judges, legislators, business leaders, and entrepreneurs. In addition, eight graduates of Allen University have become presidents of colleges and universities. This list includes:
Dr. William C. Brown (Barber Scotia College and Fayetteville State University)
Dr. Lewis Dowdy (North Carolina A&T State University)
Dr. Jerome L. Gresham(Barber Scotia College)
Dr. John Middleton (Morris Brown College)
Dr. Iona B. Mishoe (Delaware State College)
Dr. Wardell Nichols (Allen University)
Dr. Sylvia P. Swinton (Allen University)
Dr. Frank R. Veal (Allen University)
Allen University’s leading role in the preparation of clergy for the African Methodist Episcopal Church is reflected in those alumni who have become Bishops of the Church That list includes:
Harrison James Bryant (Deceased)
Vernon Randolph Byrd
William David Chappelle (Deceased)
Monroe Hortensius Davis (Deceased)
Zedekiah Lazett Grady
Lawrence H. Hemingway (Deceased)
Richard Allen Hildebrand
Frederick Calhoun James
Henry Wendell Murph
George Dewey Robinson (Deceased)
Frederick Hilborn Talbot
David R. Daniels, Jr.
Allen University alumni continue to prove to the world even in the present century that black people can and do produce worthwhile and needed services in the governmental forces of our state and nation. As a result of the type of training offered at Allen University, several alumni have been elected, served and are still serving in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Allen University celebrated its centennial year in 1970, thus closing a century of fulfilling its educational mission. The institution, founded in 1870 by former slaves, still provides undergraduate education with an unalterable commitment to teaching, research and community service, undergirded by the faith expressed in the motto of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Man our brother.”
Allen University celebrates each year with a renewed commitment to prepare its students to meet the challenges of this century. That commitment is reflected in the University’s attainment and maintenance of accreditation to award the baccalaureate degree by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and its accepted membership in the UNCF (United Negro College Fund). The University remains faithful to the dreams of its founders and to its historic mission and purpose as expressed in its motto, “We teach the mind to think, the hands to work, and the heart to love.”