Throughout its history, the college has focused its attention on the higher educational needs of women, and curricular offerings have reflected the social and economic changes impacting women’s experiences. Public service has been a key emphasis in the college’s mission.
Chartered in 1854 by the South Carolina Methodist Conference, Columbia College is the eleventh-oldest women’s college in the United States and one of only two women’s colleges in South Carolina. Initially opened as Columbia Female College, its first students entered in 1859 in a newly erected facility on Plain Street (now Hampton Street) in Columbia. The faculty was comprised of ten women and six men, under the presidency of Whitefoord Smith, a prominent Methodist minister. The student body numbered 121, and 13 students comprised the first graduating class in June 1860. The college closed after the Civil War and reopened in 1873. In 1882 a group of graduates established the Columbia College Alumnae Association to further the aims of the institution; it was the fifth such organization of women’s college graduates in the country.
The college dropped the word “female” from its official name in 1904. In 1905 the institution relocated to a new facility on land donated by the benefactors F. H. Hyatt and John T. Sloan in the Eau Claire neighborhood, north of the city. Although this facility was destroyed by fire in 1909, the college quickly rebuilt. It was accredited by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges in 1938.
In 1948 the Methodist Conference merged Columbia College and Wofford College under a single administration at Wofford. Alumnae and friends convinced conference leaders to reinstate Columbia College as an autonomous institution in 1950. Under the presidency of R. Wright Spears (1951–1977), the college began a significant building program and enrollment dramatically increased. Fire swept the campus once again in 1964, and alumnae worked closely with President Spears to raise funds for new buildings. Columbia College admitted its first African American students in 1966.
Throughout its history, the college has focused its attention on the higher educational needs of women, and curricular offerings have reflected the social and economic changes impacting women’s experiences. Public service has been a key emphasis in the college’s mission. Among the college’s most notable graduates are Wil Lou Gray (class of 1903), champion of adult education and literacy programs in South Carolina; Elizabeth Johnson Patterson (class of 1961), the first woman from South Carolina elected to a full term in the United States Congress; and Karen Johnson Williams (class of 1973), the first woman to serve on the Fourth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals.
The college curriculum is grounded in the liberal arts tradition. Undergraduate majors are offered in forty-two academic areas, and the college confers bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, bachelor of fine arts, and bachelor of music degrees. The college implemented a coeducational undergraduate evening division in 1999 and provides coeducational graduate programs in education and conflict management.
Columbia College is governed by a board of trustees approved by the South Carolina United Methodist Conference. The board selected its first woman president, Phyllis O. Bonanno, in 1997. Caroline Bagley Whitson was selected in 2001 as Columbia College’s seventeenth president.
Israel, Charles, and Elizabeth DuRant. Columbia College. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2001.
Savory, Jerold. Columbia College: The Arial Era. Columbia, S.C.: Columbia College, 1979.
Winn, Evelyn Barksdale. “History of Columbia College.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1927.