Higher learning: Shaw University has deep roots in downtown Raleigh


Originally published in Wake Living Magazine

One of the state’s newest highway markers is situated on the Shaw University campus in downtown Raleigh. Sitting beside the busy four-lane Wilmington Street across from its namesake, the plaque conveys a powerful message: “Leonard Medical School, nation’s first four-year medical school. Trained 400 African-American physicians. Operated here from 1882 to 1918.”

For those aware of the history of Shaw University, rising to the challenge of being the first in its field is one of the school’s repeated accomplishments. Shaw is the first African-American institute of higher learning in the South and one of the first in the country; it also is the first to establish housing for female African-American college students. In essence, the university has had a profound impact on Wake County’s history.

A brief account

In 1865, the Rev. Dr. Henry Tupper, a white Baptist missionary from Massachusetts, organized a theology class to teach emancipated slaves how to read and interpret the Bible. In 1866, Tupper and his students constructed a two-story building. One story served as a church, while the other became the Raleigh Institute. In 1870, the school was renamed Shaw Collegiate Institute after Baptist affiliate and chief contributor Elijah Shaw.

Due to rapidly increasing enrollment, Shaw Hall was erected in 1871. Constructed with funds from Shaw, the General Assembly chartered Shaw University in 1875.

The erection of Estey Hall in 1873 signified the first building in the U.S. designated for African-American women attaining a higher education. It also was the first building on a co-educational campus dedicated solely to housing women. Estey Hall, the oldest surviving building on campus, is registered as a Raleigh Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nearby Leonard Hall, part of Raleigh’s East Raleigh-South Park Historic District, shares dual legacies at Shaw. It is the first-four year medical school in the U.S. and the first four-year African-American medical school in North Carolina. Also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure was built in 1881 with continued support from the American Baptist Home Mission and other Massachusetts philanthropists, including Tupper’s brother-in-law, Judson Wade Leonard.

Unfortunately, Leonard Medical School students quickly found life academically, financially and physically challenging. As families struggled to raise the $60 annual tuition, students offsetting fees by building their own dormitories, sometimes hand-making bricks. Plowing through worn books and charts, however, the students made no excuses. In fact, they often tested higher on board exams than their better-equipped white peers.

In 1885 — considered a watershed year by some historians — the school added an adjacent 25-bed hospital. Professors and students at Leonard Hospital treated patients arriving from throughout North Carolina and surrounding areas. Once the much-needed doctors began practicing medicine, they found themselves working long hours — even when patients could not pay — to meet the enormous medical needs of the previously underserved African-American community. At the turn of the century, funds began to dwindle as the costs of adding more courses to the curriculum increased. In 1918, after financially struggling to graduate 400 much-needed African-American physicians, expenses outpaced donations and the school closed its doors.

After the medical school closed, Shaw retained its university status but functioned as a liberal arts college. To continue growing its curriculum and enhance its presence in downtown Raleigh, in 1931 Shaw elected its first African-American president, Dr. William Stuart, who served until 1936.

Still going strong

Continuing to meet the needs of a diverse population of students — which currently totals more than 3,500 — Shaw has grown its academics from a small classroom focused solely on religious studies to one that provides a diverse curriculum, including bachelor’s degrees in natural science, computer science, education, religion, philosophy, business, and accounting. Its graduate programs include a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Religious Education and Master of Science in Early Childhood Development, while its campus includes 33 buildings with additional plans to expand.

Today, Shaw is a private university, one where its graduates are credited with the formation of other predominantly African-American universities in the state. Shaw graduate Dr. James Sheppard is the founder and past president of North Carolina Central University; Dr. E. E. Smith, a graduate of Leonard Medical School, was instrumental in launching Fayetteville State University; and the first president of Elizabeth City Normal College — currently Elizabeth City State University — was Shaw alumni Peter Wedderick Moore.