Savannah State University, a historically Black institution, is the oldest Black public university in Georgia. On November 26, 1890, upon passage of the Second Morrill Land Grant Act, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation to establish “in connection with the State University, and forming one of the departments thereof, a school for the education and training of colored students,” which would operate as a part of the University of Georgia.
Richard R. Wright Sr.’s Legacy
A preliminary session of the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, as the school was first known, was held in the Baxter Street School Building in Athens, with Richard R. Wright Sr. as principal. On October 7, 1891, the college moved to its present location in Savannah, with Wright as the first president, five faculty members, and eight students, all graduates of Edmund Asa Ware High School in Augusta, Georgia’s first public high school for Blacks.
Richard Robert Wright Sr. was born into slave status in 1855 in a log cabin six miles from Dalton. After emancipation, Wright was educated at the Box Car School and the Storrs School in Atlanta and graduated as valedictorian at Atlanta University’s first commencement ceremony in 1876. Wright developed Georgia State Industrial College’s curriculum after visiting Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Girard College of Philadelphia, and the Hirsch School in New York during the 1890s to ascertain current trends in higher education. Upon returning he developed an academic paradigm for the fledgling college based on the seven ancient liberal arts, W. E. B. DuBois’s “Talented Tenth” philosophy, the vocationalism and self-reliance concepts of Booker T. Washington, and the educational model of the New England colleges, under which he had been trained at Atlanta University by Dartmouth and Yale graduates.
In June 1898, Richard R. Wright Jr., son of President Wright, received the first baccalaureate degree awarded by the college. He went on to become the first Black to receive a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and later became president of Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and an A.M.E. bishop.
Richard R. Wright Sr. was one of the leading figures of Black higher education in America and often conferred with some of the great educational leaders of his time. Visitors and lecturers to campus included Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Walter B. Hill, Lucy Craft Laney, Mary Church Terrell, Booker T. Washington, and Monroe Nathan Work. U.S. presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft visited the campus and spoke to students in Peter W. Meldrim Hall. By the end of Wright’s tenure at Georgia State Industrial College in 1921, enrollment had increased from 8 students to more than 400, and the expanded curriculum included a normal division, courses in agriculture and mechanical arts, and four years of high school subjects.
Georgia State College and the University System
Cyrus Gilbert Wiley, class of 1902, succeeded Wright as president in 1921 and served until 1926. During his administration, women were admitted as boarding students on campus. In 1926 Benjamin F. Hubert came to the college from Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, to serve as the third president. During his tenure, which ended in 1947, the college became a full-time degree-granting institution, without high school and normal programs, and a member of the University System of Georgia in 1932. That same year the name of the college was changed to Georgia State College.
Accreditation and University Status
In 1947 the college’s function as the state’s land grant institution for Blacks was transferred to Fort Valley State College. In 1950 the school’s name was changed to Savannah State College. For a period of fifty years starting in 1947, seven men served as president, each making key contributions to the development of the college. Important events included the college’s accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools during the presidency of William K. Payne (1949-63), the development of the first master’s degree program at a Savannah college during Howard Jordan Jr.’s presidency (1963-71), and the changing of the school’s name to Savannah State University in 1996.
Carlton E. Brown was named the eleventh and current president of Savannah State University in 1997. He served until 2006.
During the 1970s, Savannah State College played a role in the university system’s desegregation plans. In 1971 a federal lawsuit alleged that Georgia operated a dual system of racially segregated colleges and universities, an accusation that seemed well founded given that Savannah State and Armstrong State College, also located in Savannah but with a largely white student population, offered degrees in many of the same subjects. As part of a solution, the University System of Georgia developed a plan whereby Armstrong would award all teaching education degrees for the two schools and Savannah State would provide all the business degree programs. The plan went into effect in 1979.
Savannah State University continues to grow and adapt to the changing demands placed on Georgia’s colleges and universities. In 2003 the school enrolled 2,752 students. Almost 2,500 of these were Georgia residents, 60 percent were women, and although it is a desegregated school, 95 percent of the student body was African American. Savannah State employs approximately 150 faculty members, which allows for a student-teacher ratio of 18 to 1.
Savannah State has been striving to improve its academic standing. Along with several other colleges in southeast Georgia, Savannah State has entered into the Georgia Tech Regional Engineering Program (GTREP) with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. GTREP allows students to take classes at Savannah State but graduate with a degree from Georgia Tech, one of the nation’s most prominent engineering schools. A particular focus has been placed on graduate education. In 1999 Savannah began offering a Master of Science in urban studies, an interdisciplinary degree offered in conjunction with Armstrong. The school’s Master of Social Work degree (MSW) received accreditation in 2000, and starting in 2001, the school also began offering a Master of Science degree in marine sciences.
In 2007 Earl G. Yarbrough Sr. assumed the presidency of Savannah State. He was succeeded by Cheryl Davenport Dozier, who became interim president in 2011 and president in 2012.