AJC Sepia HBCU of the Week: West Virginia State University - A History

AJC Sepia HBCU of the Week is an occasional series that looks at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The year 2016 marked the 125th anniversary of the founding of West Virginia State University. Since its creation, State has played a role in transforming the lives of generations of families, and served as the springboard for thousands of successful careers.

West Virginia State graduates have become judges, teachers, chemists, nurses, pilots, actors, athletes, lawyers, military generals, CEOs, biotechnologists and even a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Generations of students have come to Institute to find their passion, and have left instilled with greater purpose to better not only themselves, but the world around them.

Originally founded as the West Virginia Colored Institute, West Virginia State University was designated by the United States Congress as one of the original 1890 land-grant schools under the Second Morrill Act.

These schools were created to provide instruction in agriculture, the mechanical arts, English language and the various branches of mathematical, physical, natural and economic science to the black citizens of the states where these individuals had no access to other higher education institutions because of segregation laws. West Virginia was one of the states that maintained segregated educational systems at that time.

From 1891 to 1915, the original Institute offered the equivalent of a high school education, vocational training and teacher preparation. In 1915, the West Virginia Collegiate Institute began to offer college degrees. Under the leadership of long-serving President John W. Davis, the academic program was expanded and new buildings were constructed, and in 1927, the Institution was accredited by the North Central Association, a milestone that led to its becoming the longest accredited public college in West Virginia.

In 1929, the Institute became West Virginia State College, and over the next few decades, State became recognized as one of the leading public institutions of higher education for African-Americans in the nation.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s with the country on the brink of entering the Second World War, State played an important role in the development of the first group of African-American fighter pilots, who would come to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. On Sept. 10, 1939, West Virginia State became the first of six historically black colleges to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program. The first pilot training class at State began on Nov. 14, 1939, and many graduates of the program would go on to serve with distinction as fighter pilots.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court gave its historic decision outlawing school segregation. The consequence of this decision for West Virginia State was a rapid transition to an integrated institution serving a predominantly white, commuting and older student population.

Enrollment quadrupled during the following decades. The reverse integration from a historically black college to a predominately white school drew national attention and headlines, and West Virginia State was declared “a living laboratory of human relations.”

In 1957, by a decision of the West Virginia Board of Education, West Virginia State was compelled to surrender land-grant status, the only one of the 1890 institutions to do so.

For 31 years, alumni of the University, interested in regaining land-grant status, looked for the right time, place and key persons to reverse this decision. Hazo W. Carter, Jr. became President of West Virginia State University on Sept. 1, 1987.

During fall 1988, President Carter undertook the endeavor to regain the land-grant status or, failing that, have the record show that all possible efforts to regain the status had been made. After a 12-year effort that included efforts on both the state and national level, the college’s land-grant status was fully restored in 2001 by an act of Congress.

In 2004, the West Virginia Legislature approved West Virginia State’s transition to University status, and today, WVSU offers 23 bachelor’s degrees and five master’s degrees in more than 70 areas of study.

WVSU continues to cherish and advance its original mission to provide access to quality higher education for African-Americans, while it has steadily broadened its horizons to serve a more diverse student population with a wider range of academic programs.

In 2013, according to a study by U.S. News, 11. 7 percent of West Virginia State University's students were black. White students made up 60.8 percent of the student population. Both of those figures are second among HBCUs to only Bluefield State College, which is also in West Virginia.

With a rich history and promising future, WVSU is positioned to become the most student-centered research and teaching, land-grant University in the state of West Virginia, and beyond.