Converse College was founded in 1889 by a group of Spartanburg leaders to provide for the education of young middle-class women. The institution was named to honor its founder Dexter Edgar Converse, a local textile-mill owner and one of the town’s most respected men. Converse later wrote, “It is my conviction that the well-being of any country depends much upon the culture of her women, and I have done what I could to found a college that would provide for women thorough and liberal education, so that for them the highest motives may become clear purposes and fixed habits of life.”
The founders purchased the site of the defunct St. John’s College on Main Street in Spartanburg and secured funds for erecting the first building. They appointed Benjamin Franklin Wilson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, the first president of the college (1890–1902). The college opened its doors in the fall of 1890, enrolling 117 students. Unlike many southern women’s colleges, Converse offered students a course of study roughly equivalent to that offered by male colleges. Until 1898 the college also included a preparatory department.
During the tenure of its second president, Robert Paine Pell (1902–1932), Converse College expanded its physical plant, endowment, and enrollment and increased its academic standards. The college established a School of Music in 1910. Two year later Converse was accepted into the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States. Converse’s highly respected conservatory-style musical education drew students from all over the United States. The faculty and students of the music school, as well as local alumnae, spearheaded the development of the South Atlantic States Music Festival, an annual event that brought musicians with national and international stature to perform in Spartanburg.
The middle of the century brought challenges. Like most southern colleges, Converse struggled with declining enrollment and financial difficulties during the Great Depression, but enrollment began to grow again by the 1935–1936 academic year. With the entrance of the United States into World War II, the college opened its doors to educational programs for soldiers stationed at nearby Camp Croft and to Wofford College juniors and seniors after their classroom buildings became army training facilities.
The late twentieth century brought more changes. The administration focused on building a high-quality faculty, hiring more faculty with Ph.D.s. The college added a Master of Arts in Teaching program in 1962, the first of several coeducational graduate programs Converse would add in the coming years. In 1968 the college admitted its first African American student, and in the ensuing decades its student body grew in ethnic and economic diversity. Converse II, a bachelor’s degree program specially tailored for adult women over twenty-five, was established in 1983.
In 2000 the college was listed among the top fifteen regional colleges and universities in the Southeast by U.S. News and World Report. Under the leadership of its eighth president, Nancy Oliver Gray, Converse pursued a $75 million capital campaign and an expansion of its physical plant.
Converse has educated thousands of South Carolina and southeastern women who became leaders in their communities, their professions, and the arts. Among the college’s most famous alumnae are the novelist Julia Mood Peterkin (A.B., 1897; A.M., 1898); the composer Lily Strickland (1901–1904; honorary D.M., 1924); the novelist Elizabeth Boatwright Coker (A.B., 1929); and the historian Carol Bleser (A.B., 1960).
Gee, Mary Wilson. Yes, Ma’am, Miss Gee. Charlotte, N.C.: Heritage House, 1957.
Kibler, Lillian Adele. The History of Converse College, 1889–1971. Spar- tanburg, S.C.: Converse College, 1973.
McCandless, Amy Thompson. The Past in the Present: Women’s Higher Education in the Twentieth-Century American South. Tuscaloosa: Uni- versity of Alabama Press, 1999.