The Incredible Story of an Early African-American College
All that remains of a sprawling Swift Memorial College complex is a restored building that now serves as memorial museum and warm, accommodating public gathering space. This is the story as copied from their website, swiftmuseum.org.
In East Tennessee, at the close of the Civil War, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America found itself somewhat adrift and disorganized. In taking its bearings and considering its re-organization in 1863, it discovered that it had a new factor to deal with in taking up anew the work of the Mister. That new factor was the newly-emancipated Freedmen. The change of affairs and relations which had been produced in their condition before the war, made it necessary for the Church to reconsider them in its re-organization and rehabilitation, and to determine not only its attitude toward them, but what they would do with them and for them. The will, hand and work of Providence in what had happened were unmistakable. The commission, responsibility and duty placed upon the Church in particular, as the result of that will, hand and work, were plainly indicated.
The Presbyterian Church saw, understood and rightly interpreted the events and the Divine mind, and therefore took in the new factor in its re-organization. It at once accepted the situation and duty, determined its position and declared its principles and policy, and took up the Providential burden. It began the organization of Presbyterian Churches and parochial schools among the Freedmen, and threw open the doors of Maryville College for their higher education. The churches and schools grew and prospered to such an extent, and the local conditions became such that it was soon manifest the Maryville College did not and would not do the work which was needed to be done, and that something else should be done to relieve the situation. The conclusion was reached that another school similar to Maryville College should be established somewhere for the benefit of the Freedmen.
In canvassing the situation, it was thought by those most prominent and interested in the matter, that Rogersville, Tennessee, was the place for the school. Rogersville was known as a Presbyterian stronghold, an educational center and where ground had once been broken and leveled for Maryville College. A goodly number of colored Presbyterians were also found there. It appeared, therefore, to be the most suitable place for the proposed college.
For the founding and propagation of the school, the providence of God pointed to Mr. W. H. Franklin, of Knoxville, a student of Maryville College. Mr. Franklin graduated from Maryville College in 1880.
In 1883, he completed his theological course at Lane, and in June of the same year, entered upon the work to which he was chosen. In September, 1883, he began the work of teaching in a rough and open frame building which was made possible by underpinning and putting newspapers on the unplastered walls. The school has grown from that small beginning through the most strenuous, persistent and bitter opposition, until it has become favorably and widely known as Swift Memorial College. The success of the work has been due to the fact that God was in the work; labor, faith and prayers behind it; the help of a great Church beneath it, and the pressing need of a great race before it.
The Board of Missions for Freedmen, desiring to honor a great and good man, and true friend of the race, suggested that the school be called Swift Memorial Institute, in memory of Rev. E. E. Swift, D.D., who was for may years, the beloved pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Allegheny, and the esteemed President of the Freedmen’s Board at his death.
His worth and work had endeared him to the Church, to the Board and to a wide circle of friends in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and they regarded it a delightful privilege and pleasure to establish a suitable and living monument to perpetuate his memory.
It is located at Rogersville, Hawkins County, Tennessee. It is a beautiful and healthy town, and has many attractions which make it an ideal town for such a school. The intellectual, moral and religious atmosphere is good and wholesome. It is reached from Bull’s Gap, on the Southern Railroad, by a branch sixteen miles long, known as the Tennessee and Ohio Railroad.
- To give colored youth a solid education in the arts and sciences.
- To train and prepare them for domestic duties and the practical business of life.
- To equip and prepare efficient and suitable teachers for public and other schools.
- To make good, intelligent citizens, and to provide Christian workers for the various duties and requirements of the Church.
The education of the boy demands the education of the girl. Swift aims to make the college the best possible school for the education of both. There is a great need of pure, intelligent, industrious and useful women. The Christian boarding school, safe-guarding, protecting, teaching and training the girls and young ladies, fits them to supply the need. It also, in many cases, substitutes and supplements the lack of home-training and the absence of a good environment.
BUILDINGS AND ACCOMMODATIONS
The College has three buildings for the accommodation of its students. The main building is a modern brick building of three stories,. It is an attractive building, and is used as a dormitory for girls, class rooms, domestic and general purposes. The rooms for young ladies are large, comfortable, well lighted and ventilated. They are provided with all necessary furniture, including bedding. No fault can be found, except that we need more of them.
The Boy’s Building is also a brick structure, recently built. It has three stories and an attic for dormitory purposes, and a basement for laundry and general uses. The rooms are neat and afford accommodations for two students only. Toilet rooms and shower bath are provided.
Provisions are made for students to do their own laundry work in both buildings. Park Cottage is a small frame building, situated between the two buildings above and is used for the accommodations of little girls. A limited number of small girls can be accommodated and cared for in it. We hope that something can be done to enlarge it and to make it better suited for its purpose.
The grounds consist of six acres, more or less, conveniently and desirably located. They are near the town, central and elevated, and afford a magnificent view of the community and the surrounding country. The buildings are the most conspicuous and the grounds, the most attractive of any in town. In due time, we hope some friend of the College will enable us to enlarge the grounds. We need more ground for industrial and agricultural purposes.
The Boarding Department is conducted on the plan of a Christian home. Students are under the control and watchful care of a matron and teachers who aim not only to train them to be systematic and orderly in domestic work, but also to cultivate in them principles of neatness and true manhood and womanhood. The work is chiefly done by the students. Each student, therefore, is expected to assist in doing the work in the dormitory or any other work which may be assigned.
Students will not be permitted to leave the dormitory without permission of the Principal, Matron or the teacher in charge. Shopping will be done by an appointed teacher. When necessary, students may accompany her to town. Honor students may visit occasionally during the day. No student will be permitted to stay out all night. The rules of the dormitory and of the school are made for the best interest of the students, and must be willingly and cheerfully obeyed.