The story of a school

IT AROSE FROM THE WOODS of East Texas in the early decades of the twentieth century, and it provided a gift that had long been denied to the parents and grandparents of many who enrolled there. Its name was Jarvis Christian College.

During the years following the Civil War, a great majority of newly freed African Americans exercised a crucial freedom long taken from them—the freedom to learn to read and write. By doing so, they sought a better future with far-reaching spiritual, economic, and political implications for themselves and their children. 

Many went to one of the colleges established by the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples had a rich history in this area, founding 11 schools for African Americans between 1868 and 1913. 

Building for the future

Jarvis’s story is one example of how both individuals and agencies, and African American and white Disciples, worked together. The land was given to the Christian Women’s Board of Missions (CWBM) by the college’s namesakes, the wealthy, influential—and white—Ida and James Jarvis, to “keep up and maintain a school for the elevation and education of the Negro race . . . in which school there shall be efficient religious and industrial training.” But money also came from African American Disciples, who raised $1,000, at which point the CWBM contributed $10,000 to the project—about $270,000 in 2013 money.

Schools like Jarvis focused on helping blacks develop basic skills, offering industrial education, training for ministry, and teacher education. African American leaders also wanted to provide qualified men and women a classical college education. But this goal caused problems with the CWBM; the white women’s organization championed the industrial model almost exclusively. 

African American Disciples leader Preston Taylor addressed the issue in 1917: “More than thirty years ago it was held that a knowledge of the English language and the English Bible was all that was necessary for the colored minister.” The “great white brotherhood,” Taylor thought, still had that same spirit, “the spirit of suspicion and doubt concerning the really educated man.”

Jarvis, the only one of the 11 Disciples schools for African Americans remaining today, evolved from a comprehensive school encompassing elementary grades to a four-year liberal arts institution enrolling a diverse student body. Its founders hoped that it would train “head, heart, and hand” and make “useful citizens and earnest Christians.” For over a century, it has worked for that goal. CH


Schools for African Americans founded by the Disciples of Christ included Tennessee Manual Labor University, Nashville, TN (1868); Louisville Bible School, Louisville, KY (1873); Southern Christian School, Edwards, MS (1875); Clara Schell’s School, Washington, DC (1882); Christian Bible College, New Castle, KY (1884); National Colored Christian College, Dallas, TX (1884); Louisville Christian Bible School, Louisville, KY (1892); Alabama Christian Institute, Lum, AL (1894); Goldsboro Christian Institute, Goldsboro, NC (1900); Piedmont Christian Institute, Martinsville, VA (1900); and Jarvis Christian College, Hawkins, TX (1913).

By Lawrence A. Q. Burnley

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #106 in 2013]

Lawrence A. Q. Burnley is assistant professor of history and assistant vice president for diversity and intercultural relations at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.
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