College of Charleston

1790 –

Classes emphasized moral discipline along with a classical liberal arts education, which included Latin and Greek, literature, rhetoric, and philosophy.

Although plans for a college at Charleston had been discussed throughout the eighteenth century, it was not until March 1785 that the General Assembly passed an act authorizing the creation of a college “in or near the city of Charleston.” On public land at Charleston’s western edge, rooms were fashioned out of an old military barracks, and instruction began on January 1, 1790.

The school struggled to survive over the next several decades. Classes emphasized moral discipline along with a classical liberal arts education, which included Latin and Greek, literature, rhetoric, and philosophy. The Reverend Robert Smith was the school’s first president, clerics dominated the faculty, and daily routines included vespers. Out of sixty students who started in 1790, six earned bachelor’s degrees four years later. Because of an insufficiency of advanced students and library, they were the last collegiate graduates for a third of a century. In the early nineteenth century the college functioned as a college preparatory school. College course work resumed in the 1820s, with an enlarged library funded by the city of Charleston, a new main building (now Randolph Hall), and a faculty of laymen. The 1830 enrollment of sixty-two in college classes would not be surpassed until 1904.

A rift among trustees, faculty, and students over discipline and power led to a suspension of operations in 1836. A request of the trustees for the intervention of Charleston mayor Robert Y. Hayne resulted in 1837 in a publicly funded city college, one of the earliest in the nation. City fathers charged the institution to be a source of cultural and economic improvement, “a Popular Institution, intended for the benefit of the great body of the people.” Under President William T. Brantley (1838–1844), the precollege part of the curriculum was discarded, the college faculty strengthened by the addition of John Bachman and Lewis R. Gibbes, and student fees reduced. Ten scholarships were offered on the basis of need. Noticed by William Gilmore Simms in 1857 as a “literary college of excellent local standing,” the school had an average annual attendance of fifty in the 1840s and 1850s. The college barely survived the Civil War and its aftermath. Despite dwindling numbers of students, it adhered to a liberal arts base while others restructured their offerings around modern knowledge. City support was meager, and enrollment declined.

President Harrison Randolph’s long tenure (1897–1941) effectively established a new college. The specialization of “majors” and many social science and science laboratory courses came forth along with distinctive B.A. and B.S. degrees. Language and mathematics requirements for bachelor’s degrees were reduced, but the master of arts added a year of course work to the thesis. Money was raised and dormitories built. New extracurricular activities, student associations, and intercollegiate sports appeared. Enrollments rose steadily and reached 90 in 1908, most of the gain coming from outside Charleston. In the fall of 1918, with most men of college age enlisted in military service in Europe, the trustees admitted the first women, and two years later they proclaimed a free college for white residents. The original group of 10 women grew to 184 in 1935 (forty-four percent of the student body), when, with the encouragement of subsidies from Charleston County Council, theoretical and practical courses in education found a place in the curriculum.

By agreement of city, county, and school officials, the College of Charleston returned to private status in 1949 in order to avoid racial integration. In 1967 political and legal pressures, reinforced by fiscal difficulties, opened the doors to black students. Shaky finances also induced President Theodore S. Stern to negotiate the transfer of the college to the state of South Carolina in 1970.

The acceleration of change continued. Under the able leadership of Stern and his successors, with regular injections of state money and more vigorous private fund-raising, the college grew. The faculty increased from twenty-five to more than four hundred, with new departments added to traditional programs and organized in five undergraduate schools: Arts, Business and Economics, Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Sciences and Mathematics. A graduate school, styled University of Charleston, appeared as well, although the core of the curriculum remained in the liberal arts. The physical plant expanded from seven buildings to over a hundred. The student body, increasingly diverse and academically qualified, exceeded twelve thousand when capped in 1999. Entering the twenty-first century, the College of Charleston enjoyed an enhanced academic reputation.

Easterby, J. H. A History of the College of Charleston. Charleston, S.C., 1935.

O’Brien, Michael, and David Moltke-Hansen, eds. Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Randolph, Harrison. “The Old Education and the New.” Proceedings of the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States (1916): 46–59.

Rogers, George C., Jr. “The College of Charleston and the Year 1785.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (October 1985): 282–95.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title College of Charleston
  • Coverage 1790 –
  • Author
  • Keywords college preparatory school, Robert Y. Hayne, President William T. Brantley, racial integration,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 5, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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