Founded in 1950, Thomas University is a private, nonprofit institution in Thomasville that offers associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Most of its students are from south Georgia and north Florida. The university welcomes a student body that is diverse in age, ethnicity, religious belief, socioeconomic status, and academic preparation.

Founding

The school was founded by Primitive Baptists dedicated to providing higher education opportunities for young men and women in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Its founder, Elder J. Harley Chapman of Valdosta, envisioned an “undertaking without precedent in the Primitive Baptist denomination” that would ultimately provide both associate’s degrees in liberal arts and bachelor’s degrees to students “of good moral character irrespective of their religious belief.” The college was originally designed to serve 100 students, who would receive an education in the liberal arts within a conservative Christian context.

Forbes Hall
Forbes Hall

Courtesy of Thomas University

A donation of $10,000 from Mrs. Vicey Harris of Jacksonville, Florida, provided the seed money necessary to search for a suitable location for the new school. After approaching officials in Macon, Waycross, Columbus, and Thomasville, committee members ultimately decided to purchase Birdwood Plantation, just outside Thomasville, in Thomas County.

Built as a winter resort in 1932 by W. Cameron Forbes, U.S. ambassador to Japan and one-time governor of the Philippines, Birdwood Plantation contained a main house (which still serves as the university’s main administration building) and a few outbuildings on forty-eight and a half acres of land adjacent to Glen Arven Country Club.

Cameron Forbes
Cameron Forbes

Courtesy of Thomas University

In 1950, with the school’s name—Birdwood College—chosen and a location secured, the executive committee attempted to recruit the college’s first entering class, with little success. The original fall 1951 opening date was postponed. After a new board of trustees was installed in 1953, a dedicated campaign ensued to “Open the Door in ’54.”

Early Years

Classes began in the fall of 1954 with nine students enrolled. The financial struggles of Birdwood College increased as anticipated support from Primitive Baptist congregations failed to materialize. Lack of adequate physical facilities impeded the college’s ability to apply for accreditation, and lack of accreditation limited the number of students willing to enroll. In the fall of 1966 the board decided to stop admitting residential students, citing the additional costs of repair and remodeling of the dormitory facilities.

Birdwood College Students
Birdwood College Students

Courtesy of Thomas University

During its first twenty years, Birdwood College graduated an average of 14 students a year with diplomas in liberal arts. The hoped-for 100 students never materialized, and in 1973 the college had only 56 students. Serious disagreements between factions of the Primitive Baptist Church over the role of the college contributed to the denomination’s declining support in the 1960s. Although Chapman had insisted in 1950 that the college was not intended to be a seminary to train preachers, that “God alone calls and educates men for his ministry by the Holy Spirit,” many Primitive Baptists expressed concern that Birdwood had been established to produce “intellectual preachers” who lacked the necessary divine calling the denomination demanded of its ministers. “Progressive” and “Old Line” Primitive Baptists were deeply divided over the need for youth camps, formal Sunday school curricula, and a college in their denomination.

During these years, Birdwood lacked sufficient financial resources to expand its focus. It was criticized for a lack of sufficient administrative personnel and for infrequent communication between the college and the denominational congregations. In the 1960s the board was expanded to include interested members of the Thomasville community from outside the denomination. In January 1966 the college applied for federal funds, an act that was unpopular among most Primitive Baptist churches in the region. In addition to federal funding, the resolution of the board to admit students “based on character and ability to do college work, regardless of color, race or creed” hastened the break between the college and the denomination. In 1966 the board forced Chapman to resign as president and dean.

Birdwood College Graduates
Birdwood College Graduates

Courtesy of Thomas University

Transition to Nonsectarian Status

Community attitudes toward the college were mixed. A local bond issue proposed in 1973 for a state junior college in Thomasville was narrowly defeated, and the intense campaign over the bond issue generated strong public debate about Birdwood Collegeand its role in the Thomasville community. An editorial published in the Thomasville Times-Enterprise that year noted several reasons that many in the community did not support Birdwood, including its sponsorship by the Primitive Baptist Church, its lack of accreditation, and the limited number of teachers and courses available.

Birdwood Annex
Birdwood Annex

Courtesy of Thomas University

Dwindling support from the Primitive Baptist churches in the region ultimately led to a resolution by the Birdwood College board to become a nonsectarian institution. In 1977 the name of the college was changed to Thomas County Community College. In 1979 the college officially severed relations with the Primitive Baptist denomination and became completely nonsectarian, private, and independent.

Accreditation and Growth

Once the college severed its ties to the Primitive Baptists, efforts began in earnest to secure accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). In 1984 the institution received initial accreditation by SACS as an associate-degree-granting institution, followed in 1990 by recognition as a baccalaureate-degree-granting institution. The name of the institution was changed once again, in 1986, to Thomas College.

Thomas University Students
Thomas University Students

Courtesy of Thomas University

Accreditation by SACS and the attainment of baccalaureate status contributed to a period of rapid growth. The student body grew from 369 in 1990 to more than 800 students in 1996. During the 1990s several new buildings were constructed or relocated to the Thomas College campus.

The conversion from the quarter system to the semester system, coupled with the state legislature’s more stringent requirements regarding HOPE scholarships, led to enrollment declines in the late 1990s. During this period two master’s degree programs, a master of business administration and a master of science in rehabilitation counseling, were developed. In 1998 the institution was recognized by SACS as a master’s-degree-granting institution and in 2000 changed its name to Thomas University.

In 2001 Thomas University purchased a small residence hall two miles from the main campus. Around the time of the name change it began an intercollegiate athletics program, playing as part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). In 2004 the Thomas University women’s softball team won the NAIA national championship.

Since 2000 Thomas University has expanded its graduate offerings to include master’s programs in education, community counseling, and nursing. Still primarily a commuter campus, approximately half of its students are older than the traditional college student. Thomas University continues to provide postsecondary opportunities focused on preparing local citizens to serve the region.

Share Snippet Copy Copy with Citation

Updated Recently

Christian Science

Christian Science

4 days ago
Alice Walker

Alice Walker

4 days ago
Etowah Mounds

Etowah Mounds

6 days ago
Baptists Today

Baptists Today

1 week ago

Explore Georgia’s rich music history

From blues and soul to classical and country—our Spotify playlists feature 130+ songs written and performed by Georgians.

Image

Forbes Hall

Forbes Hall

Forbes Hall, on the campus of Thomas University in Thomasville, houses the president's office, as well as the administration and athletic offices. The building originally served as the main house of Birdwood Plantation, which was built in 1932 as a winter resort for W. Cameron Forbes, a U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Courtesy of Thomas University

Cameron Forbes

Cameron Forbes

W. Cameron Forbes, a U.S. ambassador to Japan and one-time governor of the Philippines, established Birdwood Plantation in Thomas County in 1932. During the 1950s his plantation was converted into Birdwood College, which later became Thomas University.

Courtesy of Thomas University

Birdwood College Students

Birdwood College Students

Students attend class at Birdwood College, which later became Thomas University, in Thomasville during the 1960s. Enrollment at Birdwood College declined during this decade due to its lack of accreditation and limited academic offerings.

Courtesy of Thomas University

J. Harley Chapman

J. Harley Chapman

J. Harley Chapman founded Birdwood College, a school originally affiliated with the Primitive Baptist denomination, in Thomasville in 1950, and classes began four years later. Known today as Thomas University, the school is a nonsectarian, private, and independent institution offering associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees.

Courtesy of Thomas University

Birdwood College Graduates

Birdwood College Graduates

Graduates of Birdwood College are pictured in the 1960s. The college, founded in Thomasville by Primitive Baptists, opened in 1954 and operated until 1977, when the school became a nonsectarian institution called Thomas County Community College. By 2000 the college had evolved into Thomas University.

Courtesy of Thomas University

Birdwood Annex

Birdwood Annex

The Birdwood Annex (left) is attached to Forbes Hall, the administration building on the campus of Thomas University in Thomasville. The annex houses faculty offices, as well as the office for institutional advancement.

Courtesy of Thomas University

Thomas University Students

Thomas University Students

Students at Thomas University in Thomasville are pictured circa 2008. The university's student body comes primarily from south Georgia and north Florida to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees at the private institution.

Courtesy of Thomas University