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Feb 08, 2012 | Commission on Black Ministry

The Founding of Historically Black Episcopal Colleges

Diolog Black Colleges
St. Paul's College, Lawrenceville, Virginia

In 1865, The Episcopal Church’s General Convention organized the Protestant Episcopal Freedman’s Commission (renamed the Commission of Home Missions to Colored People in 1868), to establish schools in the South that would provide higher education and religious instruction to African Americans.  This Commission received its support from the central Board of Missions.  In 1878, the Commission was dissolved because it failed to produce accomplishments to warrant further funding.  Despite this dissolution, focus continued on the needs of African Americans within the Church. 


The American Church Institute for Negroes (ACIN), founded in 1906, was renamed the American Church Institute (ACI) in 1961.   It was established to coordinate church-affiliated schools and refocus attention on the educational needs of men and women of color. The ACIN administered schools and colleges dedicated to the education of African Americans in the South to fulfill the Church’s mission to close the gap between educational opportunities for African Americans and whites.  


ACI began its work three years prior to the founding of the NAACP and dissolved three years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  During those years, ACI witnessed a major shift in American society’s approach to rights for African Americans, from a "separate but equal" segregation-based policy, to a growing movement toward a racially-integrated society at all levels, including education. While ACI’s decision to cease its oversight of schools arose from concern that it was supporting segregated education, its positive contributions to higher education for African Americans remain.  Four of its schools continue to operate as historically black colleges and another has been absorbed into a mostly Latino-attended junior college system.


ACI assumed oversight of the following Church-affiliated African American schools:


  • St. Paul’s College, Lawrenceville, Virginia, founded in 1888 by the Rev. James S. Russell, and originally named  St. Paul Normal and Industrial School in 1888
  • St. Augustine’s College, Raleigh, North Carolina, founded by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson in 1867
  • The Bishop Payne Divinity School, Petersburg, Virginia, closed in 1949 and later merged with Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria, Virginia


Later additions include Voorhees College, Denmark, South Carolina, founded by Elizabeth Evelyn Wright in 1897, and Fort Valley State University, Fort Valley, Georgia, which began with the 1939 consolidation of the Fort Valley High and Industrial School, chartered in 1895 and the State Teachers and Agricultural College of Forsyth , founded in 1902.  The Fort Valley High and Industrial School, which was affiliated with the American Church Institute of the Episcopal Church, was transferred to state control and operation of the state.  On its first founder’s day in 1940, the address was delivered by W.E. B. Du Bois.


ACI made it a practice to support one school in any state and required that the school be located in the area of greatest concentration of African Americans.  It also required that the school would receive financial support from all of the dioceses in its state.

Initially, ACI leadership positions were filled by white churchmen, the longest-serving of whom was the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Patton, initially appointed as special representative in 1914. ACI later elected African American officers, most notably, the Rev. Dr. Tollie L. Caution, who served as assistant director and later as secretary. In addition, the Presiding Bishop served as honorary president of the Board of Trustees.