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Wilberforce University is the nation’s oldest private, historically Black University owned and operated by African Americans. Its roots trace back to its founding in 1856, a period of American history marred by the physical bondage of people of African descent. It was also a period when the education of African Americans was not only socially prohibited but was illegal. There was nothing about the prevailing social and cultural ethos of the era that suggested that African Americans might or should be taught or could learn. Yet a powerful idea assumed life and Wilberforce University was born. The founding of Wilberforce University represented a bold, audacious and visionary example of what could happen when men and women of goodwill transcended race and the prevailing social and cultural constructs and norms to pursue a noble purpose.

Wilberforce University was named for the great eighteenth century abolitionist, William Wilberforce who said “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible… So, we will do them anyway.” It was this can-do spirit that infused Wilberforce University with strength to persevere, and the institution met with early success through 1862. The outbreak of the Civil War forced the school to temporarily close its doors. This short set back did not deter the institution for long. In March1863, Daniel A. Payne a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, negotiated to purchase the and buildings, and the University was re-incorporated in July 10, 1863. Bishop Payne opened the doors of the university with six students and a debt of $10,000 and became the first person of African descent to be the President of an American Institution of higher learning. Wilberforce University prospered as young African Americans sought to educate themselves in the ending of the Civil War promised a new social order. On April 21, 1865, a headline in the New York Times announced, Wilberforce University Destroyed by Fire. Yet, Wilberforce recovered, endured and continued to grow. Throughout its 165-year history, Wilberforce University has demonstrated a formidable spirit of resilience and triumph and has never wavered from its sacred duty to educate and enrich its students.


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