Claflin University

1869 –

The university opened its doors on October 27, 1869, without regard to race, color, creed, religion, or complexion. On December 18, 1869, the school received a charter from the South Carolina General Assembly and became the first historically black college or university in the state.

Responding to the urgent need to educate former slaves, northern Methodists established Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1869. Governor William Claflin of Massachusetts and his father, Lee, provided financial support to start the institution. The Claflin family purchased the former site of the Orangeburg Female Institute. They then merged Baker Biblical Institute in Charleston and the Camden Normal Training School and renamed these institutions Claflin University. The university opened its doors on October 27, 1869, without regard to race, color, creed, religion, or complexion. On December 18, 1869, the school received a charter from the South Carolina General Assembly and became the first historically black college or university in the state. Claflin awarded its first bachelor’s degrees in 1882.

A decline in funding during the 1890s, however, threatened the school. Annual appropriations from the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, the Methodist Conference, the Freedmen’s Aid Society, the John F. Slater Fund, and the South Carolina General Assembly had enabled the institution to offer both an industrial education and liberal arts degrees. But the General Assembly withdrew support for the school in 1895 and in the following year funded the creation of a nonsectarian school for blacks on land taken from Claflin: the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina (later South Carolina State University). Moreover, determining that land grant schools like the one adjacent to Claflin were better suited to offer industrial education, the Freedmen’s Aid Society ended its financial assistance. The Methodist Church altered Claflin’s designation from university to college because the school did not meet rigorous academic standards.

By the Great Depression, Claflin had changed its curriculum. The school offered fewer courses in the industrial arts and had established a business department. Black males and white females from Boston made up the majority of the faculty. Enrollment in the grammar department (grades one through eight) declined until, by 1937, only twenty-four students were enrolled.

The racial turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s galvanized Claflin students, and many became involved in the civil rights movement in Orangeburg. They joined dozens of demonstrators at South Carolina State College and led a boycott of white merchants, protested against segregated schools and dining facilities, and later turned their attention to voter registration efforts. Claflin protestors were present when state troopers killed three demonstrators on the South Carolina State campus in 1968.

Enrollment increased during the 1970s, and the school added more majors. After a decline in enrollment during the 1980s, the student population rebounded the following decade. Claflin reinstated its historic designation as a university in 1999 and has maintained its affiliation with the United Methodist Church. In 2004 Claflin graduated 304 students with bachelor’s degrees and 17 students from its M.B.A. program, which began in 2002.

Fairley, Charlestine R. “A History of Claflin College, 1869–1987.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1990.

Gore, Blinzy L. On a Hilltop High: The Origin and History of Claflin College to 1984. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1994.

Hine, William C. “Civil Rights and Campus Wrongs: South Carolina State College Students Protest, 1955–1968.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 97 (October 1996): 310–31.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Claflin University
  • Coverage 1869 –
  • Author
  • Keywords northern Methodists, racial turmoil, historically black college
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date September 17, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 2, 2016
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