The locally-based Edward Waters College boasts two noteworthy historical distinctions, being both the state’s oldest independent college as well as its first and oldest college for Black students – commonly known as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Its storied alumni include local civil rights legend A. Philip Randolph, former sheriff Nat Glover, and Buck O’Neil, the first Black coach in Major League Baseball.
Though the university acknowledges 1866 as its founding date, the modern Ed Waters institution’s history technically starts a bit later. The origins of the college can be traced back to 1872, when two reverends – Charles H. Pearce and William G. Steward – established the Brown Theological Institute in Live Oak with the aid of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The school only lasted a couple of years before shutting down in part due to funding issues, but it would be re-established in 1883 by Reverend W.W. Simpson in downtown Jacksonville.
In 1892, the school was renamed in honor of Bishop Edward Waters of the AME Church.
The school’s original Jacksonville campus was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1901. Its modern campus was constructed, beginning in 1904, along Kings Road just north of the New Town neighborhood. In 1916, the historic Centennial Hall building debuted in honor of the AME Church’s 100th anniversary; the B.F. Lee Theological Seminary was completed in 1925.
The school operated for several decades without accreditation, as many accreditation bodies had policies against supporting HBCUs. It was finally able to receive accreditation as a junior college in 1955; full accreditation as a four-year institution didn’t come until 1979.
Today, the school continues to operate as an accredited institution, with around 1,000 students and a campus spreading over 20 acres. Its marching band is noted as one of the country’s best, and its athletics department plans to join the NCAA as a Division II team over the next couple of years.