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Huston-Tillotson University is the oldest college/university in Texas and a historically black institution, offering four-year degrees in business, education, and the arts and sciences. It was formed by a merger of two colleges, one of which was chartered in 1877, making it a few years older than the University of Texas. Both were founded with the support of Christian congregations as part of a movement to provide education to formerly enslaved people in the South during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.
In the 1870s, George Jeffrey Tillotson, a white Congregational minister from Connecticut, traveled to the Southwest looking for a site to establish a school for African Americans. With an 1877 charter from the American Missionary Society of Congregational Churches, he founded Tillotson College in Austin, which opened its doors in 1881.
At about the same time, members of the Methodist Episcopal church were looking to found an African American college in Austin in collaboration with the Freedman’s Aid Society. The society, created during the Civil War with support from Congregational, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches in the North, founded more than 500 schools in the South during Reconstruction. A gift from Samuel Huston, a wealthy farmer in Iowa, allowed them to build Samuel Huston College, which opened its doors in 1900. The two schools merged in 1952.
Notable alumni include Azie Taylor Morton, who served as Treasurer of the United States during the Carter administration, and whose signature can be found on all dollar bills from that era. Dr. Karl Downs, an alum and Methodist minister who served as president of Huston College in the 1950s, was also a pastor and mentor to baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Robinson worked here as athletic director and basketball coach just a few years before he was recruited to the major league. The university’s athletic field, named for Downs, is a historic site that was once home to Negro League baseball teams and legendary players such as Willie Wells.
In its early days the school was influenced by competing philosophies regarding the education of African Americans in the South. W.E.B. DuBois, (who had degrees from Fiske and Harvard) felt they could benefit from traditional liberal arts education, while Booker T. Washington (first principal of the industry-oriented Tuskegee Institute) advocated vocational training. The hands-on element of the Huston-Tillotson curriculum provided the building blocks for one of the highlights of the campus-- the old Administration Building (now known as The Anthony and Louise Viaer Alumni Hall) was built in 1911 in the Prairie School style from bricks fabricated by the students.
Cover image: Courtesy of Six Square.