The Magazine of South Carolina

Pacesetter of Higher Learning

Furman celebrates 175 years.


Students Doing Research

The Furman Bell Tower

The 1887 Furman Faculty

Men's Soccer Team

Furman Marching Band

Furman Graduates With Their Diplomas

by Judith G. Bainbridge

Colorful banners welcome the class of 2005 and mark the beginning of Furman University’s yearlong commemoration of its 175th anniversary this September. Furman, the oldest and most selective private educational institution in South Carolina—and one of America’s 50 best liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News and World Report—has much to celebrate. From the tiny (three students, one teacher, one house) Furman Academy and Theological Institution established by South Carolina Baptists in Edgefield in 1826, it has become a nationally recognized independent university where 215 faculty members educate 2,600 students on a lovely, 750-acre campus six miles north of Greenville.

While Richard Furman, a noted Charleston minister who believed in an educated clergy, was planning a Baptist preparatory academy for the South, community leaders in the Up Country resort village of Greenville Courthouse were building male and female academies. In 1823, they hired Baptist minister William Bullein Johnson to be the first principal of the Female Academy. Three years later he became chairman of the board of agents (the controlling body) of the soon-to-be-opened academy in Edgefield named for Richard Furman.

Its first years were rocky. The institution moved three times, first to the High Hills of the Santee in Sumter County, then to Winnsboro and finally, at mid-century, to Greenville. In 1850, the South Carolina Baptist Convention chartered The Furman University as a "classical school" with a theology department (thus the "university" in the name) and began building a campus on a bluff above the Reedy River.

Created to educate "poor and pious young men for college," the university’s mission broadened in Greenville. The first professor hired was Charles Judson, who specialized in science and mathematics. Chairman of the faculty was James Clement Furman, son of Richard Furman.

After the university introduced both preparatory and college classes in 1851, the Greenville Male Academy closed. The Female Academy had become, in the words of later Gov. Benjamin Perry, "a paltry school." In 1854, when 200 boys were studying in Furman’s elegant new Italianate main building, South Carolina Baptists decided to educate their girls as well. After debate and lawsuits, the community transferred the academies’ land and buildings to Furman’s trustees. The Greenville Baptist Female College opened in 1855.

The Rev. James Clement Furman, who became president of the university in 1859, preached orthodox religion and states’ rights in every Baptist church in the Greenville District and converted Greenville’s Unionist majority to the secessionist movement. In December 1860, Rev. Furman was one of the signers of the state’s Ordinance of Secession, and the following April he and his students cheered at news of the firing on Fort Sumter. Six months later, the university closed as many students and faculty marched off to fight for the Confederacy. The Female College remained open during the war, however, and Greenville became a refuge for Low Country residents fleeing federal troops.

After the war, the colleges, the town and the state were desperately poor; there was not enough money to print a college catalogue when Furman reopened in January 1866. Conditions worsened. In 1868, as enrollment dropped and faculty resigned, a friend urged President Furman to give up the ship. He defiantly replied, "I have nailed my colors to the mast, and if the vessel goes down, I will go down with it."

He very nearly did, as both Furman and the Female College struggled through the next decades to survive poverty and mediocrity. On the brink of bankruptcy in 1881, the university was reorganized and J.C. Furman retired.

Charles Judson, president of the Female College, appointed his sister Mary Camilla "lady principal" of that school of about a hundred students (Furman, meanwhile, had about 50). Miss Judson, a native of Connecticut, was a discreet feminist and firm believer in women’s right to a higher education. She taught literature, French, art, astronomy and botany, among other courses. She introduced calisthenics so girls could loosen their corsets and stays to exercise; elocution so they would be at ease speaking in public; and a college literary society, the first woman’s organization in Greenville. She also started the college library with student donations of 25 cents a semester. She brought, an alumna later recalled, "the stern rigor and morality of New England" to the struggling little school and sparked generations of young women with the desire to excel and a belief in their own potential.

After 1900, cotton mills brought wealth to Greenvillians and increasing prosperity to both educational institutions. The Female College, with 300 students, added two new buildings early in the new century, while Furman built five, including a handsome library for its 250 students, thanks to a donation by Andrew Carnegie. Furman began to graduate future scholars of international distinction, among them John Mathews Manly, who became chair of the English Department at the University of Chicago, and John B. Watson, the founder of behavioral psychology.

Many Furman students were as interested in sports as studies. In 1889, they played Wofford College in the state’s first intercollegiate football game, added an annual track and field day and adopted purple and white as the school colors.

In 1908, the Greenville Female College separated from Furman’s control, and six years later President David Ramsay changed its name to Greenville Woman’s College. Between 1911 and 1925, Ramsay built two new dormitories, a separate library, and a fine arts building with a 1,200-seat auditorium. He eliminated precollege courses, enrolled 700 students in spite of more rigorous admission requirements, and rapidly increased library holdings. But he couldn’t raise the endowment necessary for the school to gain official accreditation.

Furman was more fortunate. On December 4, 1924, the Southern Association accredited the school. Five days later, President W.J. McGlothlin learned James B. Duke had named Furman one of four college beneficiaries of a massive new endowment.

Duke Endowment funds kept the university alive during the Great Depression, but the Woman’s College languished. In 1933, on the verge of bankruptcy, it merged with Furman and became its coordinate Woman’s College. Furman trustees fired half the Woman’s College faculty to cut costs but had to transport students between the two campuses. They hired cabs and then buses to shuttle students between "The Hill" and "The Zoo," as the two campuses were called. Coordination brought better education at an accredited school for women, and increased enrollment at both colleges.

In 1941, 1,100 students enrolled—but when most men joined the military during World War II, the university became overwhelmingly female. Returning veterans swelled the postwar student body to 1,400, however. The university had to expand to meet the need for more space and to enable the two campuses finally to merge into one.

The trustees decided in 1950 to purchase 1,100 acres north of Greenville and build an entirely new coeducational campus. The Boston architects who had designed Colonial Williamsburg created red brick and columned classrooms and dormitories. Long Island landscape architects Innocenti and Webel transformed red clay cotton fields into a stunning campus graced with fountains, malls, gardens and a lake. The American Society of Landscape Architects recently listed the campus as one of America’s 362 most beautiful places.

Men moved into new dormitories in 1958, women in 1961. The new coeducational campus was designed for 1,800 students. However, the university—with an 18-hole golf course and, after 1968, an unusual three-term calendar and a new curriculum emphasizing international study—attracted a surge of academically talented students.

In 1965, Furman became the first private college in the state to admit black students. In 1973, it was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. By the time John E. Johns became the ninth president in 1976, enrollment was more than 2,000 and the endowment $22 million.

Furman has continued to grow while retaining its focus on liberal arts and sciences. In 1992, after disputes about the election of trustees, the state Baptist Convention and the university severed their 166-year connection. Furman became independent. The same year, Mrs. Charles Daniel bequeathed $24 million to Furman. Determined to create a better—not bigger—school, trustees capped enrollment at 2,600; made multimillion-dollar renovations to the University Center and dining hall; added a music building wing; constructed a tennis center, track and 5,000-seat basketball arena; completed a social sciences building; and erected 11 apartment-style residences for juniors and seniors.

David E. Shi, who became president in 1994, presides today over a university that no longer is struggling. Furman is one of the nation’s leading private universities, boasting a $260-million endowment, spiraling applications for admission, students from 46 states and 39 countries, and a rigorous academic program grounded in liberal arts yet offering a wide range of preprofessional programs.

The university’s strategic commitment to "engaged learning"—a concept that links study abroad, faculty-student collaborative research and a variety of internships—helps students take responsibility for their own education. They learn by doing, not just listening and reading.

Furman, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, is a "hot" school. But it remembers and celebrates its heritage as a community of learning, steadfast in its commitment to ideas, service and leadership.

Judith G. Bainbridge is director of educational services and professor of English at Furman, where she has worked since 1976.


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