William Johnson Trent was born in 1873 to sharecroppers in Charlotte and raised in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1925, a year after helping start the United Negro College Fund, he was named president of Livingstone College.

William Johnson Trent: Co-founded United Negro College Fund and more

Jeanne Johns Adkins, a retired editor at Virginia State University, is the granddaughter of educator and Atlanta historical figure William Johnson Trent. Adkins is also the youngest of the six children of Altona and Vernon Johns, the latter of whom was the renowned  pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. She told her family’s story to AJC Sepia’s Ernie Suggs.

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I have been blessed to have black history legacies on both sides of my family tree.

I am the daughter of the Rev. Vernon Johns, who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.

I am the first cousin of Barbara Rose Johns, who was part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

And I am the granddaughter — on my mother’s side — of William Johnson Trent, one of the founders of The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the catalyst behind the creation of the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta.

Jeanne Johns Adkins, a retired editor at Virginia State University, is the granddaughter of educator and Atlanta historical figure William Johnson Trent. 
Photo: Family photo

Because of those early ties to the city of Atlanta, I have chosen to make my grandfather the subject of this piece.

William Johnson Trent was born in 1873 in Charlotte, N.C., later relocating to Asheville, N.C.

His parents were sharecroppers. William, too, had to work in the fields from a very young age. Farm life was hard, and three-fifths of the yield always went back to the landowner.

When not working, William attended the segregated black school. But a livelihood always came first.

When he was not needed on the farm, three months of study in the winter and two months in the summer was the extent of his schooling.

At left: William Johnson Trent (1873-1963), photo taken circa 1925. At right: William Johnson Trent Jr. (1910-1993), photo taken circa 1950. (Family photos)

One church that had been established in an area called Pineville would come to have significance in young William’s life. This was the AME Zion Church, which William later declared to be his “Christian home.”

Other important developments also occurred around this time. One involved a student from Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., who was pastoring a church in the area. He spent the night at William’s home and told his mother, “When your son gets through down here, send him to Livingstone.”

William never forgot that.

Another important event involved the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which had arrived in the United States in 1851. By 1883 there was a black YMCA in Charlotte, and it became a central part of the community.

Yet in 1890, despite all the activities then available in his hometown, 17-year-old William heeded the advice of that visiting preacher and headed to Salisbury.

William arrived at Livingstone on Jan. 10, 1890. He might have walked to Salisbury from his uncle’s home in Charlotte, which was 42 miles away. But many other students had also likely walked many miles to get to the college.

William now had three tenets that would define his life: Christianity through the AME Zion Church; the YMCA, an organization that helped young men transition from farm to city; and Livingstone College.

My grandfather spent the rest of his life helping those institutions develop and thrive.

During his years of academics at Livingstone — which included high school classes, normal school (teacher training), and college courses — Trent also participated in many extracurricular activities and played on the football team.

He was known additionally for his YMCA leadership. So it was no surprise that YMCA representatives who visited black colleges on a regular basis seeking potential leaders had come to know and observe William.

RELATED: Read the full AJC series on black colleges

William Johnson Trent (1873-1963), photo taken circa 1925. 
Photo: Family photo

When he graduated as class valedictorian in May 1898, he was offered a job as director of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) in Asheville, doing work very similar to that of the YMCA.

By 1906, he had arranged for the YMI to become part of the National YMCA.

While working hard and developing a career in Asheville, news came that the Atlanta YMCA was in deep financial trouble. In 1910, William was asked to take the Atlanta job and he accepted, though it was not an easy decision.

His mandate was to handle the Atlanta branch’s financial problems, as well as raise money to build a new YMCA there. This was a most difficult task.

In 1918, he engineered the sale of the Auburn Avenue property for $7,200 and purchased nearby land on Butler Street for $10,609.

By May 1920, William’s dream and that of those who had given him the task came true — the dedication of the brand-new 10,000-square-foot Butler Street YMCA, built at a cost of $115,000.

Old Butler Street YMCA 24 Jesse Hill Jr Dr NE, Atlanta, GA 30303 This building became a center of social life by providing recreation and supervised activity space for younger blacks and a meeting place for older blacks. Many of Atlanta's young black men belonged to the Y and used it as a recreation center. Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced as a youth by his membership here. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Reann Huber

At that same time, Livingstone College was struggling to stay afloat, and a decision was made to replace its president.

The administration thought William Trent might be the answer.

He was an outstanding alumnus whose career they had closely followed. He was a YMCA leader who had turned around two failing organizations, and he was a man of high character and regard.

In 1925, William was offered the presidency and returned to Livingstone, the place that always held his heart. It’s where he had the joy of seeing his son, my uncle, William Johnson Trent Jr., come to teach economics on campus.

Trent Jr. had earned an MBA from the Wharton School in Philadelphia and finished second in his class, but not one of the 10 recruiters who came to Wharton would allow him to interview for a job.

Trent Jr. was also working on a doctorate in economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, he became the first director of the UNCF, where he stayed for 20 years, helping to raise money for the organization that his father helped found.

William Johnson Trent Sr. retired from Livingstone in 1958 after 32 years of dedicated service. He remained active and involved after retirement and lived to see many improvements at the college and in the area of civil rights. As always, music and books were his mainstays.

When he died on June 14, 1963, the Salisbury Sunday Post wrote of Trent Sr.: “When measured by the obstacles he overcame, Dr. Trent stands tall among the tallest of men. Wherever he went and whatever he undertook, he gained with dignity, wisdom and kindness, the respect of all men.”

As his granddaughter, I completely agree.

Learn more: How to celebrate Black History Month in Atlanta

Jeanne Johns Adkins’ cousin, Judy Scales-Trent, has written a book about William Johnson Trent. “A Black Man’s Journey from Sharecropper to College President: The Life and Work of William Johnson Trent, 1873-1963” was published in 2016.


Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to AJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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