Eight Turning Points

On Thursday night, I spoke as part of a group of campus historians at the opening of the Spartanburg Regional Museum’s exhibit on higher education in Spartanburg County.  Each of us had seven minutes to share something about our college’s history.  I explained to the audience that I couldn’t really tell Wofford’s history in seven minutes, but they could certainly buy my book if they wanted to learn more.  I could share eight turning points in Wofford’s history with them, and I’m sharing them here. 

1.  Sometime during the summer of 1849 – The Reverend Benjamin Wofford has a visit from his friend, Rev. H. A. C. Walker, and during their conversation, Ben asks Brother Walker for his thoughts as he was writing his will.  After learning the amount of the intended bequest was $100,000, Walker asks the question, “Why not found a college?”  Wofford had been thinking along these lines, and decided to leave the bulk of his fortune to create an institution for literary, classical, and scientific learning to be located in my native district of Spartanburg.  After his death in December 1850, the trustees named in the will met just over the hill at Central Methodist Church, selected the site, and contracted for the buildings.  Thus Benjamin Wofford, Methodist minister and Spartanburg native, founded a college to serve both his church and his home community.  The college opened in August 1854. 

2.  May 1864 – The college had gotten off to a good start, and by the outbreak of the Civil War, had about 79 students and had granted about 49 degrees.  The endowment, which had started at $50,000, had risen to over $85,000, a nice sum in those days.  A nice sum, that is, until the college invested all of it in Confederate bonds, bank stock and other investments.  As late as 1864, they had reinvested it, and of course it was all ruined by the war.  The loss of the endowment meant that the college virtually had to start over financially, and led to years of financial struggle. 

3.  1904 – Wofford ends its first experiment with coeducation as the last of eight women takes her degree.  In 1897, at the request of the Methodist conference, Wofford begins to admit a small number of women, and two join each of the next four classes.  However, the women felt isolated and the college elected to end the experiment.  Had it worked out a little differently, Wofford could have been a very different place. 

4. 1918 – The Student Army Training Corps is established to provide military training to students during World War I.  The SATC soon became the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and hundreds of army officers have received their training through the detachment, a detachment now shared by many of the campuses in Spartanburg. 

5.  May 1964 – Wofford becomes the first private college in SC to admit African-American students.  The decision came about after a year of study by the trustees and administration.  The decision was announced in May 1964, and in the fall, the first African-American student, a graduate of Carver High School, applies and is accepted.  The college gradually admitted more African-American students, especially in the late 1960s. 

6.  February 1971 – The college decides to admit women as non-resident students, and in the fall of 1975, chooses to move to full residential coeducation beginning in the fall of 1976.  The college saw coeducation as an opportunity to improve the diversity and academic quality of the student body. 

7. 1985 – The Olin Foundation rejects a grant request for a technology building.  The trustees, stung a little by the rejection, are nonetheless encouraged to take a hard look at the college, and the administration, faculty, and trustees develop a long-range plan to improve the quality of the college.  As a result, the college has increased the number of faculty, majors, academic programs, and the quality of the student body.  And, four years after the initial rejection, the Olin Foundation awarded a $5.5 million grant to the college for that technology building. 

8.  1988-1997 – The college’s athletics teams move from NAIA to the NCAA, and in 1995, they move into Division I.  In 1997, the college joins the Southern Conference.  At the same time, the college improved its athletics facilities so that the NFL’s Carolina Panthers are able to hold their summer training camp in Spartanburg.  The facilities, which were part of the 1987 masterplan, and the move into the Southern Conference have allowed Wofford to compete with much larger colleges, and they’ve also provided the campus and the community with new experiences in sports. 

Eight turning points, but still one campus.  

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