Allen University had its origins in Payne Institute, a school established at Cokesbury by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1870. The institute, however, became a faltering enterprise, unable to surmount its indebtedness and its unfavorable location in the “quiet village” of Cokesbury. Bishop William F. Dickerson and other clergy decided to move Payne Institute to Columbia, where it became Allen University. The state of South Carolina granted a charter on December 24, 1880, and property was purchased for $6,000.
Within nine years of its charter, Allen had graduated seventy-five persons from the college, law, and normal departments. Though most of the students were South Carolinians, others came from neighboring states and the Caribbean. In 1900 Allen included four buildings on four acres, eight faculty and staff, and 285 students. Five years later, the faculty had increased to seventeen members and enrollment reached 413 students. At the centennial General Conference of African Methodism in 1916, the denomination’s Secretary of Education reported that during the preceding quadrennium Allen University’s student body ranged between 628 and 667 in the classical, scientific, normal, theological, English, and industrial divisions. The normal and English curricula enrolled more than half of all students. More than sixty students were graduated annually between 1912 and 1916.
The productive presidency of David Henry Sims, an Oberlin graduate and a future AME Church bishop, developed Allen University into a full fledged seat of learning. He inaugurated a faculty exchange program with neighboring Benedict College, which allowed students at both campuses to take courses from instructors at the other school. Allen and Benedict also cooperated in a joint summer school. Between 1928 and 1932, students and graduates in the College of Liberal Arts, teacher training, high school, music, and divinity divisions totaled 1,780. Despite these accomplishments, Sims sadly reported in 1932 a deficit of $27,162. As with other educational institutions, the Great Depression seriously harmed Allen’s finances.
Well regarded presidents followed Sims, including Knoxville College and Union Theological Seminary alumnus Samuel R. Higgins and David Shannon, another distinguished theologian who had been president of Virginia Union University. Some Allen alumni became leaders in the AME Church, including Bishop Richard Allen Hildebrand and Bishop Vernon R. Byrd. Allen student Melissa Evelyn Thompson Coppin was later graduated from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia as a doctor of medicine in 1910, and practiced medicine in both Baltimore and Philadelphia. Other distinguished Allen alumni included the minister and civil rights advocate J. A. DeLaine, and the scholars Edward Sweatt and Bettye Collier Thomas.
At the beginning of the twenty first century, Allen University was still operating under the auspices of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and regularly drawing financial support from the Seventh Episcopal District (South Carolina) and from the denomination. The Reverend Charles E. Young, a former AME Church pastor in West Columbia and Charleston, became president in 2001. That fall, the institution had an enrollment of 1,226 students.
Ashmore, Nancy Vance. “The Development of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, 1865–1965.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1969.
McMillan, Lewis K. Negro Higher Education in the State of South Carolina. [Orangeburg, S.C.], 1952.