Roger Williams University (Nashville, Tennessee)

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Roger Williams University
Former name
Nashville Normal and Theological Institute
Active1866 (1866)–1929 (1929)
FounderAmerican Baptist Home Mission Society
Location, ,
United States
CampusCurrently occupied by American Baptist College

Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee was an historically black college. It was founded in 1866 as the Nashville Normal and Theological Institute by the American Baptist denomination, which established numerous schools and colleges in the South. Renamed for Roger Williams, the founder of the First Baptist Church in America, it became the largest Baptist college in the area for educating African Americans.[1] It was founded in a period when Protestant mission groups sponsored numerous educational facilities for freedmen in the South.

By 1874, the college occupied a 28-acre site on a knoll near Hillsboro Pike. In 1905, its buildings were destroyed by two fires of suspicious origin, which led it to close.[2] In 1908, it opened with a new campus at a different location.[2] By 1922, there were only 159 students and 12 faculty members. On July 12, 1927, the decisions was made to merge with Howe Institute in Memphis. The students and teachers left for Memphis on December 29, 1929.[3]


A group of students in 1899

Daniel W. Phillips, a white minister and freedmen's missionary from Massachusetts, taught the first classes at what was called Nashville Institute. In 1866, the Baptist Home Mission Board sponsored selected African-American men for the first classes here, including Hardin Smith and Martin Winfield from Haywood County, Tennessee. After they returned to their home communities of Nutbush and Brownsville, respectively, they became ministers and founded several Baptist churches in the area, as well as the first school for freedmen in the county.[4]

In 1874, the college, now known as Roger Williams University after Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and one of the first abolitionists, built a campus on a 28-acre site near Hillsboro Pike in Nashville. In 1886 it added a master's degree program.[2] It operated here until 1905, when two suspicious fires destroyed its buildings. The campus was sold by developers posing as a Christian missionary agency, under a restrictive covenant barring African Americans from living on the land.[5] The school closed for three years; the site is currently occupied by Peabody College (merged in 1979 with Vanderbilt University). After Baptist fundraising Roger Williams reopened in 1908 at a new location.[2] In 1922 it had 159 students and 12 faculty.[2]

Numerous African Americans who became teachers, ministers, doctors, and other leaders in the South were educated here throughout the 19th[6] and early 20th centuries. Graduates included William Madison McDonald, who became an influential Republican politician in Texas.

In 1929, the university, already afflicted by financial problems made worse by the stock market crash of 1929, ceased operations; students and faculty were moved to Howe Institute, in Memphis (today LeMoyne–Owen College). The site is currently occupied by American Baptist College, a historically black college, and the World Baptist Center.


  • The site of the college from 1874 to 1905 near Hillsboro Pike is commemorated by a state historical marker.[1]

Notable alumni and faculty[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Roger Williams University Historical Marker".
  2. ^ a b c d e Lovett, Bobby L. (2017). "Roger Williams University". Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society.
  3. ^ "Roger Williams University". Retrieved 2018-11-23.
  4. ^ Sharon Norris, Haywood County, Tennessee, Black America Series, Arcadia Publishing, 2000
  5. ^ "City Alumni of Roger Williams University Will Give a Booth Entertainment at the Spruce Street Baptist Church". Nashville Globe. April 19, 1907. p. 4 – via Chronicling America. Beautiful Roger Williams University is no more. The buildings were destroyed by fire. The insurance money was collected and carried to New York or somewhere else, and the campus has been cut up into residence lots and is being sold under an agreement that no Negro will be allowed to live there except as a servant. This arrangement was made by a society posing as agency to do Christian missionary work. The Negroes have become disgusted with such hypocrisy and have determined to erect a Roger Williams themselves and conduct the same as they see fit.
  6. ^ Roger Williams University (29 August 1885). "Catalogue of the officers and students of Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tenn. : for the academic year 1884-85, with the courses of study". Nashville, Tenn. : Wheeler, Osborn & Duckworth, printers – via Internet Archive.

External links[edit]