History of Austin’s first institution of higher learning: Huston-Tillotson University

Huston-Tillotson University

Huston-Tillotson University was established in 1875, making it the oldest institution of higher learning in Austin. | Photo by ATXtoday team

Did you know Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin was established in 1875, making it the oldest institution of higher learning in the city? To put that into perspective, that’s two years before St. Edward’s University + nearly a decade before The University of Texas at Austin were founded.

This historically Black university — also known as an HBCU — was originally named Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, after Reverend George Jeffrey Tillotson who chartered the school. The school was created from the support of the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the American Missionary Association of the Congregational churches.

Huston-Tillotson University actually consists of history from several schools, Tillotson College and Samuel Huston College.

Dr. Reuben Shannon Lovinggood became the first president of Samuel Huston College (present-day Huston-Tillotson University) in 1900. Notably, Dr. Karl Everett Downs became Samuel Huston College’s president in 1943, making him the youngest president of a college or university at the time.

In 1952, the two colleges would become one institution of higher learning for Black people in Central Texas.

historical marker

The Tillotson College historical marker is placed in front of the school’s former administration building. | Photo by ATXtoday team

In 1878, the St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church — which was originally located in Dallas and served as a school for young Black people in the community – relocated to Austin, less than a mile from Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute. It was located where present-day Wesley United Methodist Church is in Austin.

This school — which was under the direction of Methodist minister Reverend George — would later be named Andrews Normal College, then Samuel Huston College, after a farmer from Iowa by the name of Samuel Huston donated $10,000 worth of property to the school.

Samuel Huston College was chartered in 1910 as a private educational corporation, approved as a senior college by the State of Texas Department of Education in 1926, and in 1934 accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

By 1952, based on mutual values, the Tillotson college + Samuel Huston College agreed to join forces where Tillotson College was located, which at the time was called “Bluebonnet Hill.” The two institutions officially merged on October 24, 1952, with the motto “In union, strength.”

This union of two schools provided the main source of higher learning for Black people in all of Central Texas, until the historic Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.

The site of Samuel Huston College was listed under the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, and the Tillotson College was listed in 1999.

Jackie Robinson at Huston-Tillotson

Dr. Karl E. Downs (right) with Dr. Everett Givens (left) and Jackie Robinson (center), who was the athletic director of Samuel Huston College, which included coaching the basketball team for the 1944-45 season. | Photo via the Downs-Jones Library Archive and Special Collections

Huston-Tillotson University has produced notable alumni and associates that include:

Jackie Robinson — The famous baseball player was head of the athletics department of Samuel Huston College from 1944-45, before rising to prominence in his baseball career.

Dr. Herman Aladdin Barnett, lll — He graduated from Samuel Huston College in 1948 + became a fighter pilot, surgeon, and anesthesiologist. In 1953, he became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Texas Medical School.

Lucille Elizabeth Bishop Smith — She was an African American entrepreneur, chef, and inventor who graduated from Samuel Huston College in ~1912. Lucille invented the first hot biscuit mix + known to be “the first African American businesswoman in Texas.” The restaurant Lucille’s in Houston honors her legacy.

Frederick D. Patterson — He received schooling at Samuel Huston College in the early 1900s. He would go on to achieve becoming an academic administrator, the president of Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University), and the founder of the United Negro College Fund.

Volma Overton — After serving in the Marines in World War II + the Army Reserves, he attended Tillotson College from 1947-1950, earning a degree in chemistry with a minor in math. He became a civil rights activist and the president of NAACP’s Austin chapter from 1962-1983, and is known for his work to end racial segregation in Austin schools. Lamar Beach at Town Lake Metro Park is set to be renamed in his honor.

Dr. Connie Yerwood Connor — This doctor first graduated in 1925 from Huston College. She became a Texas physician + the first Black doctor to work for the Texas Department of Health. The Connolly–Yerwood House — Dr. Connie Yerwood Connor’s home for many years — was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. The home is painted in pink and green, the colors of the sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., in which she was a member.

Inez Beverly Prosser — She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at Samuel Huston College in 1926, with a minor in English and Psychology, and is known to have been the first African American female to receive a doctoral degree in psychology.

Most recently, Colette Pierce Burnette — the president of Huston-Tillotson University — was named Austinite of the Year by the Austin Chamber of Commerce. She was the first woman to be named president of the institution since the colleges merged in 1952.

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