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Maryville College: Noble, Grand & True

Story By Sherri Gardner Howell

The threads that run through history – whether it be your own personal history or the history of a storied institution – are seldom continuous. Storylines frazzle, fray or get knotted up, and another picks up. For Maryville College, which is finishing up a year-long bicentennial celebration next month, the thread of inclusive values runs consistent.

The celebration tag line “Noble, Grand & True” is fitting for the occasion, not just as a source of pride for alumni, staff, faculty and current students, but as a definition of the college’s history.

Dr. Aaron Astor, associate professor of history at Maryville College, teaches a course on the history of the college and regularly writes about the institution’s place in history. “Maryville College was racially integrated from its earliest days,” says Astor. “William H. Franklin was the first African American to graduate, and that was in 1880. But founder Isaac Anderson had that vision of an education for all from the very beginning in 1819, and he was adamant about it.”

Anderson, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia, created Southern and Western Theological Seminary in 1819, but his opposition to slavery and dedication to education was evident even earlier. “One of Anderson’s first students at a seminary he founded was George Erskine, whom he purchased out of slavery in 1815 and enrolled in the seminary. Erskine went on to be a Presbyterian minister and got help from Anderson’s congregation at New Providence Presbyterian Church to purchase and free his family from slavery.” Erskine eventually went to Liberia to be a Presbyterian minister and missionary.

The school’s students also included the poor and often Cherokee students, said Astor. At the preparatory school Anderson founded to complement his seminary, a bright but mischievous Sam Houston kept Anderson on his toes. One story has Anderson writing of needing to “whip Sam Houston but he would come up with such a pretty dish of excuses that I could not.”

Anderson, says Astor, “found a way to do things when everyone said they couldn’t be done. He just went ahead and did them anyway. His value system was so strong that, even when a time came with college leadership that didn’t share it, the foundation Anderson laid and the people he educated persisted, and his values endured.”

The college closed in 1861 as the Civil War began. When it reopened in 1866 under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson Lamar, it reflected the values of its founder. The first female students enrolled in 1867, and the first woman to receive a degree, Mary Wilson, graduated in 1875.

“The Jim Crow laws in Tennessee made life difficult at the college during the end of the 19th century,” says Astor. “When state law banned integration, they complied. What they did was immediately award 10 percent of their funds to black institutions of higher learning. When Brown v. Board of Education passed, Maryville College was immediately re-integrated.”

The college has remained true to its founding principles in other ways as well, says Astor. “We have remained true to our belief in a liberal arts education as a way to train and equip our students for the world. There is also the service component that remains part of our core and the connections we foster with the community around us.”

Famous alums to be proud of abound at Maryville College, with lists that include educators, authors, sports figures, industrialists, judges, evangelists and even a guru. “Our students come out of here knowing how to write, to speak, to work and to solve problems,” says Astor.

The college has a heritage that instills pride. “No institution is perfect, but Isaac Anderson’s principles were solid,” says Astor. “He was way ahead of his time, and the college has used these 200 years to embrace and refine his vision.”

As for Anderson, he kept his philosophy succinct. He said simply that “all should do the most good on the largest possible scale.”

Key Years in Maryville College History

1819 – MC founded as the Southern and Western Theological Seminary
1825 – First class graduates from MC
1842 – “Maryville College” receives official charter
1861– College closes as U.S. Civil War begins
1866 – MC reopened under the direction of Thomas Jefferson Lamar
1867 – MC’s first female students enroll
1868 – Classes move to present-day campus
1870 – Anderson Hall completed
1875 – MC becomes the first college in Tennessee to award a bachelor’s
degree to a woman, Mary Wilson
1880 – MC’s first African American alumnus, William H. Franklin, graduates
1881 – MC campus enlarged to 250 acres (including the College Woods)
1888 – MC’s first football team organized
1891 – Orange and garnet adopted as school’s official colors
1922 – MC receives official accreditation the Southern Association of Colleges
and Secondary Schools.
1954 – U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation laws unconstitutional; MC resumes its former integration policy
1960 – Nancy Smith Wright, the first African American student to graduate from MC since 1898, received her diploma
2014 – Maryville College Works career preparation program launched
2016 – Dr. Mary Kay Sullivan named first female chairman of the Board of Directors
2017 – College announces receipt of $15 million from the estate of Dan ’40 and Elaine McGill

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