Historic market to be placed in recognition of historic institute

Joshua Houston

A 19th century historical educational institution will soon be enshrined into Huntsville history. 

The Walker County Historical Commission will hold a historical marker dedication for the Bishop Ward Normal and Collegiate Institute on Feb. 22 at 11 a.m. at the corner of Old Madisonville Road and Pleasant Street, paying homage to Black History Month. The institution, which influenced prominent minds such as Joshua Houston is considered particularly impactful for the Huntsville’s African American community.

“The idea for a historical marker about the institution came in 1993, when the city of Huntsville was getting ready to commemorate General Sam Houston’s 200th birthday,” said Donna Coffen, vice chair of the Walker County Historical Commission. “Since then, 25 markers have been dedicated and we have been anxiously waiting to commemorate this unique piece of Huntsville history.”

Following the end of slavery, African American communities began to establish educational facilities for freed slaves. However, during reconstruction, funding for African American schools was slashed, and churches in the community were required to fund the education of its students. There were several primary schools opened for African American students during reconstruction in Huntsville, but there were no normal or collegiate institutions.

“Emancipation and reconstruction were very difficult times for African Americans,” Coffen added. “Although, this was theoretically a time when the community was supposed to gain equality and freedom, many were alienated. However, great minds in the community came together to ensure they were not forgotten or left to suffer.”

In the early 1860’s, local Bishops Richard H. Cain, Thomas M.D. Ward and Rev. Charles W. Porter of the African Methodist Episcopal Church led a movement to expand the higher educational opportunities for African-Americans in Huntsville. After deciding to establish a higher education facility, Porter and other community leaders established a board of trustees, consisting of prominent local African American leaders, including Joshua Houston, Memphis Allen, Joseph Mettawer and John “Tip” Hightower.

“To establish a higher education facility for African Americans at this time in history was relatively unheard of and unpopular,” Coffen said. “It is really a testament to the legacy of Sam and Joshua Houston that it was a reality at all.”

In Sept. 1883, the board of trustees purchased a 54-acre plot from S.R. Smith, which would become the location of the Bishop Ward Normal and Collegiate Institute. The institution was housed in a two-story brick building and opened its doors later that month with just 10 students, instructed by professor C.W. Luckie.

The school followed a classical liberal arts curriculum, teaching Latin, Greek, mathematics and grammar. The school also had domestic arts courses and a manual labor department.

By 1884, 164 students, including boarding students, were enrolled in the institution. Although the school was open for just a few years, it had an immeasurable impact on the local African-American community and symbolized the community’s efforts to secure the promises of freedom.

“The institution was only open for four to six years and it has been lost to history for the most part, even amongst the African American community,” Coffen added. “I think it is so important to remember because it really added a piece to the historical puzzle. It is a missing link and we continue to learn more about local African American history, which is crucial for all of us.”