Morristown, Tennessee, is rich in history. It was first settled in 1787, almost a decade before Tennessee became a state. The town played host to both Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. It was also home to Morristown College, established in 1881 to offer former slaves opportunity for higher education. The school was fueled by donations and operated on a shoestring budget, yet managed to stick around for 113 years until it closed in 1994.
The buildings never found re-use and eventually landed in the lap of an unmotivated owner, who ignored redevelopment and rescue efforts. More than twenty years after closing, Morristown College’s brick husks are still standing – albeit slowly crumbling – just blocks from the city center. A new owner hopes to change that, but development partners are needed before the plans can turn into a reality.
Are these decaying buildings significant and an important part of Morristown history, or are they merely blight? Are they worth saving, and if so, what can be salvaged?
cover photo courtesy Bobby Woods
Morristown & the School
The area known today as Morristown was settled by Gideon Morris and his family in 1787. Morris was granted a 400-acre tract by the state of North Carolina (Tennessee did not become a state until 1796), and on this land Gideon established Morristown – however it was not officially incorporated until 1855.
For the purposes of our story we fast forward to the fall of 1868, when the Freedmen of Jefferson County’s Morristown district in Tennessee established a grammar school in a small church provided by the Presbyterians of Orange County, New Jersey.
In November of 1869 the school hired Mrs. Almira (“Miss Hattie”) Stearns, a Vermont native and Civil War widow who served as a missionary after the war. Her calling was the education of the freshly emancipated slaves, most of whom were illiterate by law. Soon after her arrival Miss Hattie was teaching black students to read and write, 100 at a time.
In 1880 Reverend W.C. Graves, the Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) Church’s presiding elder of the Morristown District, partnered with M.E. Church Bishop Henry W. Warren, who shared his belief in a critical need for education beyond primary grades for blacks. The men “had the interest of the Colored people at heart,” and “saw a need of a higher than ordinary school.”
Graves and Warren represented the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and together they set out to find a location to establish such an institution.
The Reagan High School for Boys was a one-story framed structure situated on an acre and a half across a steep hill in Morristown, Tennessee. The building itself was constructed in 1830 and originally functioned as a meeting house. Later it served as a slave mart, then a hospital for both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War. In 1881 it was purchased for $525 by Reverend Graves and Bishop Warren, with half of the funds coming from the Board of Education for Negroes of the M.E. Church.
The Church’s plans were to improve access to education for non-whites, and it began with giving Mrs. Stearns and her pupils a permanent home in the former high school. A new entity was established. Reverend Graves became President of the Board of Trust of Morristown Seminary, and to serve as the first president of the seminary’s new school, Graves and Warren selected Dr. Judson S. Hill.
[ Did You Know? The first black college in East Tennessee was Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee, founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1875. Morristown College was the second, founded in 1881. ]
Judson Sudborough Hill was a New Jersey native who relocated to Morristown in 1878 to fill the vacant pastorate of the First M.E. Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Upon his arrival, Dr. Hill also noted the need for education facilities for blacks, which led him to start a school in the basement of the church in Chattanooga.
This experience, in addition to his diplomacy in dealing with racial pressures, landed him the appointment as Morristown Seminary College’s first president.
If enrollment was the measuring stick, the school was an immediate success. At the conclusion of the first operational year (1882), Dr. Hill and Mrs. Stearns hosted 190 students in the 60-foot-by-40-foot three-room building. Built in former Confederate territory, Morristown Seminary College became a moral triumph.
The bells of success rang proudly throughout the halls of the school, however they were inaudible outside its doors. Morristown was still rife with prejudice, and threats to both Dr. Hill and the school were not uncommon. Hill and his family found a less than cordial reception from the town’s white community, who often hurled racial epithets at Dr. Hill and Miss Hattie in the streets. Stearns’ daughter was treated poorly and spit upon. Hill often walked in the gutter to avoid being shoved off the sidewalk.
When the Civil War ended, the regional bigotry that had been cultivated for generations was not easily erased. One manifestation was ill-treatment in the streets, another was arson. Fires became all too common, forcing Dr. Hill and his staff to regularly rebuild and make repairs. The hate was not universal; when displaced by the fires, students found refuge in the homes of accepting white families in town.
Those responsible for Morristown Seminary College were not only driven, but resilient. Despite threats to their lives, Dr. Hill and Mrs. Stearns persevered with their mission to educate the oppressed minority. It was not a high-paying job. In the early and racially difficult years, the heartfelt gratitude and unwavering loyalty from the black community is what kept the educators going. For Dr. Hill and Miss Hattie, that was reward enough.
Morristown Normal Academy
Students began enrolling at Morristown’s Seminary school by the hundreds. Initially the school was established as an elementary and secondary-level institution. The school offered Primary, Normal, and Preparatory courses which ranged from algebra and geometry to spelling. Due to its religious affiliation, Christian values were emphasized.
Because its enrollment included students young and old, they were grouped by skill level rather than age. It was not unusual to see three generations seated together working on the same problem.
In 1883 the Seminary built the three-story, twenty-two room Stearns Hall dormitory for $2,500. The following year an Industrial Department was planned. Major advancement came in 1886 when the Tennessee State Board of Education recognized Morristown Seminary as a “normal school” (an institution for the training of teachers). Two years of high school level education were added and the name was changed to Morristown Normal Academy.
[ Getting to School: Remember the grandparent story about walking five miles to school through snow, uphill both ways? Early Morristown students walked 10 to 12 miles to school – some without shoes – and several had to cross a river. ]
The Women’s Home Missionary Society of New Jersey donated the funds to build a two-story model home in 1892. Its sixteen rooms were used to give instructions in dressmaking, housekeeping, millinery, and sewing. Known as the New Jersey Home, it is the oldest Morristown College building standing today (map).
By the end of 1892 Dr. Hill had expanded the campus to 13 acres. He was not only a pious man, but a graceful diplomat and shrewd fundraiser. If there was a better candidate to smooth the district’s obdurate race relations of the day, Morristown and the M.E. Church did not know of him or her.
Hill exercised an artful finesse when rubbing elbows with the upper-crust, and it was through his efforts that Morristown College was able to secure donations from philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, The McCormicks and Swifts of Chicago, and the Kelloggs of Battle Creek, Michigan.
Hill was even willing to bathe the feet of donors, as he did with Mr. Horace Crary, who was suffering with gout. Crary felt such relief he donated the remainder of the funds necessary to build Crary Hall, the school’s first dormitory, completed in 1898 (pictured below).
Hill’s fundraising allowed for the addition of dormitories, classrooms, administrative offices, and a dining facility to the institution. A Music Department was added and “…arranged in three grades for the piano.” In July of 1898 the school dropped the “Academy” and changed its name to Morristown Normal College.
A $15,000 donation by Mrs. Horace C. Crary upon her death in 1899 kick-started more expansion at the turn of the century.
[ Morristown Hero: From slavery to freedom, the story of Andrew Fulton. Fulton (pictured) was sold in 1861 after a “lively auction” for $1,166 in the slave mart that later became Morristown College. After being freed Fulton studied in that same building under Mrs. Stearns, and eventually graduated from Morristown Normal Academy in 1887. Fulton then taught at Morristown Normal College for 45 years until his death in 1932, becoming one of its most distinguished educators. ]
Morristown Normal & Industrial College
At the dawn of the twentieth century there remained resistance among whites toward the movement to educate blacks, especially higher education. A compromise was the decision to steer them toward industrial and vocational education. This was not their preferred solution, but it was one endorsed by Booker T. Washington.
Dr. Hill followed the trend and in 1901 purchased a foundry machine and blacksmith shop so that brickmaking, blacksmithing, machining, and molding could be added to the curriculum.
The school also purchased carpentry tools and woodworking machinery before the shift’s dénouement: A name change in 1903 to Morristown Normal & Industrial College. This would later be simplified to “Morristown College” by the students. New classes in masonry and iron molding were added.
One unique wrinkle was that Dr. Hill insisted the classes be segregated by sex. Female students studied separate from males, and learned cooking, serving techniques, sewing, and shoe-making.
“To the young Negro man and woman no greater opportunity for progress and success is afforded than through the training of the hands as a means of putting to more productive use the knowledge and power of the mind.”
– Dr. Judson S. Hill
Students honed their craft in the Morristown N. & I. shops. Finished items were sold with the profits going back to the college, creating an economic stability for the school. This was augmented by the dairy farm, also an income-producing venture. For his part, Dr. Judson Hill was concerned with the school’s ability to sustain itself into the future. He was an intelligent prognosticator, keenly aware that “chance benevolence is too risky to assure the perpetuity of an institution.”
In 1903 the Industrial Department moved into the school’s new shop building, the William and Sarah Boyd Memorial Building, upon its completion. Here broom making became a point of pride for the school, which produced the “best handmade brooms in the market.”
[ In 1908 Morristown N & I had 26 teachers and 346 students. Of the $20,000 annual expenses, the Society contributed $5,100, the students paid $3,500, and the remainder came from donations and sale of goods created by students. ]
The largest and oldest brick structure on campus was the administration building (later renamed Laura Yard Hill Hall), finished in 1911 with a $10,000 donation from Andrew Carnegie. With a raised stone basement and central tower dominating an arched entrance, it visually dominated the landscape.
Morristown College Laura Yard Hill Hall (administration building)
Laura Yard Hill Hall (pictured above) was home to the administrative offices, bookstore, classrooms, the school library, and a chapel. Incorporated into the rear of the considerable structure was a large, 700-seat auditorium. Dr. Hill was so proud of the school’s new centerpiece, he declared “Hats must not be worn in this building.”
In 1915 Morristown N & I’s enrollment had reached 258 students: 183 elementary students and 75 students in the secondary school.
A donation of $19,500 by Frank B. Wallace of Detroit, Michigan, finalized the funding necessary to build a barn and dairy complex on the school’s recently donated 300-acre (120 ha) farm. In homage to its largest benefactor, the operation was named Wallace Farm. The Kellogg Creamery, a later addition, was built with donations from Mrs. Frances D. Kellogg.
[ Did You Know? Dr. Judson Hill appealed to all Methodist Church missions around the world, requesting samples of wood from the countries in which the missions were located. Every mission responded with a sample. Hill’s woodworking students crafted the samples into a parquet table that was sold for $2,600 in 1912 to pay debts. “The Bishop’s Table” was later returned to the school where it was displayed in the Miriam Partin Library. ]
Upon completion of the new farm complex, Morristown Normal and Industrial College added an Agricultural Department to the school. Students learned to grow and tend to acres of corn, clover, potatoes, soy beans, and wheat. The barn and its surrounding fields were eventually home to a herd of 22 cows, 16 calves, 43 hogs and pigs, and 17 sheep.
While there was growth in training facilities, the lack of accommodations resulted in students being turned away. By 1915 Crary Hall was over capacity with students crammed into fold away cots that were added to every room. Dr. Hill realized a need for an additional dormitory, and began fundraising for the next structure.
“Where there is education, there is less criminality.”
– Dr. Judson S. Hill
More and Better Buildings Starting Tomorrow
Morristown N & I was an institution of limited means, but the school persevered by taking advantage of its adroit student labor. For the new male dormitory, Dr. Hill enlisted his students to acquire the raw materials. Trees from Wallace Farm were sacrificed to the cause; by 1921, 240,000 feet of timber had been cut and dried in a kiln at the school.
Students used the college shops to mill the dried wood into doors, flooring, lathing, and sashes. Lime was burned with slabs and cord wood. Five hundred thousand handmade bricks were assembled. By the end of 1921 the materials had been gathered; at the start of the new year, construction was set to commence.
Shortly before 5:30 a.m. on January 10th, 1922, the frightening yet all-too-familiar sound of a fire alarm sounded at Morristown N & I. When authorities responded, they found that Crary Hall was on fire, as well as the building materials for the new dormitory students had put together. The doors, flooring, and milled framework created by the students succumbed to the flames with little protest. A loud crash was followed by the falling of framed walls and a collapsing of brick walls. Citizens, students, and teachers watched helplessly as Crary Hall and the supplies which took a year to assemble were rapidly oxidized in a spectacular fashion. Fortunately nobody was hurt.
Dr. Hill watched in anguish as his piece de resistance burned to the ground. While arson was suspected, the official cause of the fire was never determined. A heckler in the spectating crowd threw a barb at Hill: “Guess that puts you out of business, Doctor.” Standing steadfast, and after a brief pause, Hill replied:
“There will be more and better buildings starting tomorrow.”
Many in town responded positively to the tragedy by opening their doors to the displaced students. Site cleanup and insurance coverages took time to settle, but by July 1922 construction workers were breaking ground on the new three-building complex that would contain the rebuilt Crary Hall female dormitory, the new Wallace Hall male dormitory, and the new Kenwood Refectory, which functioned as the school’s dining facilities.
Each dormitory had a capacity of 175 students, and the refectory seated 300. The separate buildings were connected by small brick corridors which protected the students from the elements. Visually, the arcades helped to create an appearance of one large building.
Corresponding with the new buildings was new curriculum, added by Dr. Hill in hopes of achieving greater academic credibility. Pre-law and pre-medical departments were added, along with more students and teachers. In 1923 the school was renamed Morristown Junior College and became the first junior college in Tennessee – black or white. The first five graduates received their junior college diplomas in 1925.
After the first Crary Hall fire, construction was expedited on Wallace Hall, the southernmost of the three structures. It was completed and readied for the males in August of 1923. By October of that year, the Kenwood Refectory was ready to serve meals to Morristown students.
The northernmost of the three buildings, the second Crary Hall, was finished and began accepting female students in March of 1924. Unfortunately the new Crary Hall was felled by another fire just two years later, in March of 1926.
Once again, Dr. Hill conducted a round of fundraising for the $15,000 in estimated expenses beyond the insurance coverage. Careful salvaging of materials saved $10,000 toward the rebuilding costs of the third iteration, and the replacement hall was erected by September (pictured above). Another donation by Mrs. Frances Kellogg allowed the school to break ground on a gymnasium in August of 1926. The dedication of the Kellogg Gymnasium took place on May 25th, 1927. (It’s named was later changed to the Valentine-Branch Gymnasium after a 1963 remodel).
Morristown College reached its apogee by the late 1920’s. Enrollment was approaching 400, and the school’s acreage and fifteen buildings were valued at nearly one million dollars. The school attracted students nationwide – as well as foreign exchange students – and fielded athletic teams competing in baseball, basketball, and football.
Academic growth was concurrent with facility expansion; the school began offering traditional freshman and sophomore college classes in 1927. Two years later the school added a Bachelor of Arts degree program, however the program was unsuccessful and potentially derailed by the Great Depression. It was axed in 1931 after producing only two graduates.
In 1930 the school donated some land to the city of Morristown to open an elementary school for black children. When the Judson S. Hill Grammar School was opened in 1931, it relied on recycled books and used curriculum materials from other schools.
At the time, Dr. Hill had led Morristown College for fifty consecutive years, a distinction no other college head in the country could claim.
Loss of a Founder
On September 14th, 1931, the 77 year-old Dr. Judson Hill died after battling a short illness. When news spread of Dr. Hill’s death, the community temporarily put differences aside. Townspeople came together to celebrate the man who inherited a shack on one and a half acres, and with few resources, and turned it into the 375-acre, dozen-building Morristown College. More than 15,000 students had spent time at Morristown under his stewardship.
City officials credited Dr. Hill, via his fundraising of more than $1.5 million, with bringing more money to Morristown “than any single man in the history of the city.” The city’s reduced crime rate was believed by many to be directly attributable to the presence of the school, and Dr. Hill’s relationships with white leaders across town helped smooth racial tensions during the difficult early postwar apartheid.
Ever the fundraiser, the selfless benefactor was still trying to help others when he died. Before his death President Hill was working on a $500,000 endowment program “in order that the man who follows me may not have as hard time as I have had and that the School might live when I am gone.”
Life After Hill
Influenced by the aftershocks of the Great Depression, the Board of Schools of the Methodist Church did not rush the process of selecting a successor. In October of 1933, two years after Hill’s death, the Board selected Chicago Training School professor Edward C. Paustin as the next President of Morristown College. Paustin’s main task was to rescue the school during a tough economic period following the Great Depression. His tenure lasted all of three years, during which time he managed a change in school curriculum from industrial training to liberal arts.
Under Paustin the main administration building was renamed Laura Yard Hill Hall, in honor of Dr. Hill’s wife for her contributions to the institution. Paustin closed the industrial shops in a cost-cutting measure, and he eliminated all industrial classes by 1935. Teacher salaries were cut in half. Despite his drastic measures, Paustin was unable to completely reverse the financial fortunes of the school and resigned in 1937.
For the next seven years Morristown College was capably managed by Dr. J.W. Haywood (pictured), notably the school’s first black president. From 1924 until 1937, Dr. Haywood had served as the dean of Morgan State College in Baltimore. Haywood continued the work of Paustin and successfully managed to keep Morristown College financially solvent.
Like Dr. Hill, Haywood was a deft orator and organizer. He sold the school’s 300-acre dairy farm in 1939, the proceeds of which helped the school survive during this period. Haywood eventually left Morristown College in 1944 after being elected president of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
After Haywood, Dr. Miller W. Boyd became the president and was the first Morristown College alumnus to become president of the institution.
Boyd was an articulate and enigmatic leader who returned the school to levels of prosperity not seen since the Dr. Hill era. Under Boyd enrollment at Morristown College grew to 435 students, the most in school history.
School finances improved as Boyd rekindled relationships with businesses around town. Community relations forged by Dr. Hill were restored during Boyd’s tenure.
Dr. Boyd emphasized school pride, and reminded every student of their role as a diplomat for sixty-plus years of history represented by the proud college. Race relations were improved under Boyd, who established a good rapport with the community.
In 1947 the college was fully accredited by the Southern Association and given a class “A” designation. The school began issuing high school diplomas to veterans who could pass general equivalency tests. Eighty three students received diplomas in 1951, at the conclusion of the school’s 77th school year.
[ There is one student death in Morristown College history: In November of 1950, star fullback Willis Barbee of the Morristown College football team died after suffering neck injuries during a football game (pictured). ]
The stress of the job took its toll on Dr. Boyd, who led the school until his death in December of 1952. The 54 year-old died of a heart attack while planning a fundraiser. Faculty and students were devastated to lose Morristown College’s guiding light.
(click to enlarge)
Dr. Boyd’s wife, Mary Whitten Boyd, served as interim president for the next year until Dr. Henry Lake Dickason assumed the post in August of 1953. Dickason (pictured) served as school president for just under four years, until his death in April of 1957.
In August of 1957, Dr. Leonard L. Haynes Jr. was appointed president of Morristown College. Under Haynes the school undertook a complete revision to the curriculum and became a member of the American Association of Junior Colleges. However it was not a good fit, and Haynes resigned in 1959, again leaving the school under the direction of an administrative committee.
The committee made only one change: Ending high school level instruction, no longer necessary after a 1958 referendum by the citizens of Morristown allowed for the construction of a new black high school (West High School).
New President, New Building
The next president of Morristown College was Dr. Elmer Pettiford Gibson, appointed in 1959. Gibson (pictured) was a decorated Army Lieutenant Colonel and the son of a former slave. The former Army chaplain had served in World War II and the Korean War, and had earned a Bronze Star and Legion of Merit awards along the way.
Gibson also held several college degrees, including a Master’s Degree in Education from Temple University.
“I believe in the betterment of all the people, their upgrading on the job, and an opportunity for all people to develop themselves morally, spiritually, educationally, and economically.”
– Dr. Elmer P. Gibson, president
Morristown College’s Board of Trustees voted to amend the school’s charter in the spring of 1961. Among the changes was the creation of a two-year program at what was now known as Morristown College, which had dropped “Normal & Industrial” from its name. Despite the broader scope and generally improved curriculum, the school experienced a decline in enrollment throughout the 1960’s.
Credited with the decline were the completion of West High School and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which opened the doors of white colleges and universities to black students. Morristown College found it difficult to compete with the larger public institutions that received federal and state funds. Through economies of scale the state schools could offer more classes and cheaper tuition to students. In 1963 the Morristown College school magazine reported the decline in enrollment to just over 200 students.
Financial support came to Morristown in the late 1960’s by way of donations and grants. In June of 1966 the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare approved a $120,000 grant to finance construction of a new $368,000 science center at Morristown College (another source says $500,000). Groundbreaking took place in April of 1966.
Additional funds came in 1967 via a $75,000 donation from Bishop Prince A. Taylor Jr., resident bishop of the New Jersey Methodist Church. Taylor’s donation was a gift from the trustees of Central Methodist Church in Trenton, New Jersey, for the establishment of the Judson S. Hill Memorial Trust Fund (pictured).
The new building was named the Sheeley-Drew Centennial Science Hall. It was the product of a “Bridge the Gap” campaign launched in 1964, and was the first new building to be constructed on campus since 1926. The science hall was named for former Morristown College Board of Trustees member Lynn Sheeley Sr. (d. 1965), and Dr. Charles R. Drew, a pioneer in blood preservation.
Visually the building is the least spectacular on campus, with a very simple flat-roofed, rectangular design that blends into the landscape. Inoffensive and built somewhat on a budget, the structure yields to style in the name of function.
“Education is man’s greatest hope. An educated boy or girl can rise above his or her environment. We aren’t born with prejudice; we acquire it – whether we’re black or white.”
– Dr. Elmer P. Gibson, president
[ Did You Know? Morristown’s Main Street has elevated sidewalks. Known as the “Skymart,” they were the result of a 1962 flood which wiped out the downtown commercial district. The businesses responded by constructing an elevated walkway, essentially creating a second main street of stores. The project cost $7 million dollars and took five years to complete. Check it out on Google Streetview. ]
Downhill Road for Morristown College
In May of 1968 Dr. Gibson dismissed eleven students for leading a rebellion against dormitory rules. The following year, Gibson resigned. The next man up was Mr. J. Otis Erwin, who served as Morristown College president until 1972. Troubled times would persist as student unrest continued. More student rebellions took place, including one in October of 1970 which involved a drive-by shooting. It was the first reported incident of violence in the school’s 89-year history.
On May 20th, 1972, Dr. Raymond E. White, then-superintendent of the Johnson City District of the United Methodist Church, was named Morristown College president. Dr. White served as president until 1981 and shifted the educational focus, bringing back remedial courses for those who did not finish high school. This came at the expense of art, literature, and music, which were cut as resources were directed elsewhere.
Dr. White was adept at procuring grants. In May of 1973 the school received a $5,000 library grant. The following month the school received a $265,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as part of a program to raise the academic quality of financially struggling colleges.
The school also received a grant of $47,219 from the state’s Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants Program. And in June of 1975 the school was awarded another grant from the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare – this time for $100,000. Some of those funds financed a 1973 renovation of the auditorium in Laura Yard Hill Hall, which was re-named the Edgar A. Love Auditorium in tribute to Bishop Edgar Love of Baltimore, Maryland.
Despite the grants and shift in educational programs, enrollment at Morristown College during the 1970s continued to decline. Diversity remained strong; the 1976 issue of the school publication Reflections reported the school had students representing 22 states and foreign countries. However the bulk of the students came from Tennessee, Florida, and North Carolina.
Financial troubles caught up with the student base by the end of the decade. In 1979 the student body had defaulted on 64% of its student loans, landing the school on the state’s National Direct Student Loan Default List. Financial pressure also forced the school to reduce its administrative footprint; in 1980 Morristown College became an adjunct campus for nearby Knoxville College.
Dr. White resigned on June 30th, 1981. The next president was Dr. Charles Wade, who assumed the position in August of that year. Wade re-emphasized the school’s Christian foundation and introduced a program with Walters State Community College that allowed students to take half of their coursework at Morristown College, and half at one of the specialized technical programs of Walters State.
Short-term the results were positive – enrollment nearly doubled from 112 students in 1981-82 to 200 students in 1982-83.
During this time the school’s 14 faculty members taught one of four divisions: Humanities, behavioral sciences, science and mathematics, and applied sciences. Dr. Wade’s last-ditch effort to re-align the school’s curriculum was a reasonable attempt to save the school during a period of tremendous headwinds, however the bump was short-lived; during the next two years the school continued to witness lower enrollment.
The buildings of Morristown College have also endured their fair share of fires in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, both suspicious and those of apparent accidental origin. In February of 1983 Wallace Hall was set ablaze by faulty wiring and later restored.
The Kenwood Refectory burned in 2008, due to arson. Police later charged an 18-year-old Morristown man with starting the fire that gutted the former dining hall.
In October of 2010 another fire destroyed Morristown College’s crown jewel, Laura Yard Hill Hall. Firefighters spent seven hours battling the blaze, however the building was a total loss. According to Morristown Fire Dept. Deputy Chief Clark Taylor, the former campus “has been plagued with young people drinking in the abandoned buildings, homeless people seeking shelter, and the occasional methamphetamine laboratory.”
Morristown College’s Last Chapter
On September 15th, 1983, the historic campus of Morristown College was added to the list of the National Register of Historic Places due to its architectural significance and its “important contributions to African-American education.” The nomination referenced the school’s notable Queen Anne and Georgian Revival architectural styles, but noted the campus has been neglected.
On the grounds of financial deficiencies, Morristown College lost its accreditation in December of 1986. Then-president Dan Smith was displeased with the ruling, and claimed the school’s $1.4 million budget had a surplus that year.
In 1989 the school was officially absorbed by Knoxville College and re-named Knoxville College-Morristown Campus. Its operation as a satellite campus lasted just five years; by 1994 the facility was permanently closed.
After the school was shuttered its ownership trail was murky until 2006, when Knoxville auto dealer Harry Lane purchased the site at auction for $850,000. Lane had plans to redevelop the site but died shortly after his purchase, leaving Morristown College to his son Kenny Lane.
The younger Lane did not share his father’s vision, and according to city leaders was a disinterested owner, frequently unreachable and never returning calls. Worse, they claimed the younger Lane had taken $6 million in loans against the property before it fell into foreclosure. Tired of inaction, the city went so far as to fine Lane on a weekly basis to make him want to sell. Lane refused and allowed the fines to accumulate.
Morristown College was eventually foreclosed upon and returned to lien holder SunTrust Bank. The neglected and now crumbling buildings did their part to lower the property’s value; its enormous debt service financially encumbered the property even further. With the financial crisis still fresh in the rear-view mirror, it seemed the former college campus was doomed to life of decomposition under bank ownership.
Preservationists put a foot forward when the school made the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance’s “East Tennessee Endangered Heritage List” in 2010, however overtures by the alliance toward Mr. Lane were reportedly rebuffed. One source claimed Lane “threatened to tear the buildings down and apparently was not interested in working with the group to seek grants to protect the structures.”
To the surprise of many, a new property owner appeared in April of 2014. Henry & Wallace, LLC (H&W), purchased the property and its buildings for $275,000 in an open bid during a trustee’s sale on the steps of the Hamblen County Courthouse. Behind the purchase were Knoxville-based developers Brant and Amy Enderle, also of MCD, LLC.
The group intends to build a combination of commercial and residential properties on the former college campus. The Enderles, H&W, and C3 Studio have met with city and county leaders, as well as local residents and the Morristown College Alumni Association, regarding the group’s vision for the site.
“We’re excited about the piece of land. Amy and I own it. I like to own things. I don’t like to sell things. So if we own it 20 or 30 years, that’s perfectly fine. I don’t feel any need to make it all happen overnight… We’re very patient developers.”
– Brant Enderle
The focus will likely be senior housing, as the group commissioned studies on the need for assisted living services in the area and results were “very positive.” According to the study, there was an unmet demand for senior housing in Hamblen County. H&W is looking to partner with other developers who might be interested in building an aquatic center, a community gardens and theater, grocery store, or hotel.
What about the Morristown College buildings? In the fall of 2014 Enderle offered insight on what might be saved:
“At this point we’re fairly comfortable saying that the auditorium and the gymnasium will be saved. The science building, is a function of what the condition of the roof is, but our initial impression is it is savable. The primary building (that administration building) that burnt, we’re hoping to at least at a minimum saved the arch, save the historic entrance to the building. One of our partners and us are working on the saving of these dormitory building.
We’re hopeful that when we get the interior out of them then we’ll be able to utilize and go back into those. The building that burnt in the middle, the cafeteria, in all likelihood the fire destroyed the integrity of the brick so it’s unlikely that that remaining shell will be savable, but obviously it was a very, very beautiful building.”
Also optimistic was Mayor Danny Thomas, who had made the rescue of Morristown College his goal since assuming office in 2012. His exuberance might have been partially driven by the absence of Lane, but he had positive things to say about Brant and Amy Enderle. “They’re good at this sort of thing. I’m excited about it.”
UPDATE 11/3/2016: In June of 2016 city leaders filed a petition in circuit court to condemn the property, calling it a “safety hazard.” The Enderles’ had previously disclosed plans for re-development, but failed to make progress with the Morristown College campus after several years. The last city appraisal for the property valued the land at $700,000, but noted it would cost $707,000 to demolish the buildings and remove the asbestos. “Because the cost of demolition exceeds the value of the property, the city says its current owners would not be entitled to any money.“
Then on October 31st, 2016, news outlet WBIR revealed the city purchased the Morristown College campus for $900,000 – more than $200k higher than its appraised value and $625k more than what the Enderles paid for it at auction in 2014. This transaction will likely result in the buildings being torn down, as the city intends to demolish the remaining structures and build a memorial park that will “address the historical significance of the city’s history.”
Morristown College Legacy
Morristown College featured moderately successful lower-division college football teams between 1906 and 1960; the Red Knights finished as co-champion of the Eastern Intercollegiate Conference in 1953. The school produced 15,000 graduates across several generations before it closed in 1994. In the more than two decades since, its buildings have remained vacant.
Now the buildings are in extremely poor condition. The most beautiful and grand of the structures – the Kenwood Refectory and Laura Yard Hill Hall – have already been destroyed by fire. Gone are the students, classes, and pep rallies. Today the buildings host little more than meth chefs, stray animals, vagrants, and some youthful rebellion.
Untainted is the school’s proud history, which includes notable alumni such as Marlene Clark, Shirley Hemphill, and of course Andrew Fulton, the subject of the school’s unique milestone of being the first to matriculate and employ a former slave on the same site in which he was sold.
Morristown College was not the best, biggest, or even oldest school in the state of Tennessee. But it played an important role in post-emancipation opportunity, and ultimately, equipped its students for a better quality of life.
Maya Angelou once said people might forget what you did, but people never forget how you made them feel. Her words suit Morristown College, seen today by city planners and many neighbors as an eyesore. Yet to its alumni and former staff – some of whom still get together for reunions – the former school was a door to opportunity. It was where they met their loved ones, made friends, or experienced a first independence from home. And that made them feel great.
(click to enlarge)
Photos courtesy Bobby Woods
The Historic District of Morristown College consists of thirteen brick-and-frame buildings dating from 1892 to 1928. The structures range from one to three stories in height and represent architectural styles ranging from Georgian Revival to Queen Anne. The overall campus is approximately forty-eight acres; only the athletic fields were excluded from the school’s inclusion on the National Register. The original 1830 schoolhouse is no longer standing (map).
Here is the breakdown of important and notable buildings on site:
• Crary Hall [Built: 1898-1926. 2016 Status: Still standing. Map. Streetview.]: The original Crary Hall, built in 1898, was a four-story brick and stone building with one hundred rooms. It contained classrooms and bedrooms for resident students, but was destroyed by fire on January 10th, 1921. It was rebuilt in March of 1924 and then was partially destroyed in another fire in March of 1926. Dr. Hill personally raised $15,000 beyond the $45,000 paid by insurance to rebuild the hall a third time. It was rebuilt by September of 1926 and lasted fifty years before suffering in another fire in the 1970s.
A shortage of the original handmade brick resulted in the upper floors being rebuilt with wood siding, giving the structure its unique brick and wood appearance today, three fires later. The first floor contained the head resident’s apartment, a student lounge, and sixteen rooms. The second and third floors each contained bathrooms and twenty-six rooms. The basement was home to the infirmary, laundry, and the student center.
• Laura Yard Hill Hall/Administration Building [Built: 1911. 2016 Status: Burned shell, some walls still standing but entire roof & most floors gone. Map. Streetview.]: Named for the wife of Morristown College founder. Oldest brick structure on campus, construction began in 1901 and was finished ten years later. Foundation is comprised of limestone quarried from the site; the students produced the bricks.
Much of the construction and woodwork was provided by students working their way through school. It had a “raised stone basement, arched entrance, and central tower with bracketed cornice and pyramidal roof.”
In the 1960’s a one-story addition became home to the library expansion. An interior renovation in 1972 updated most of the building, save for the auditorium, which has remained “virtually unaltered.” It was once considered the best Eclectic educational structure in Hamblen County. Dr. Hill was said to be so proud of the new administration building he stated “Hats must not be worn in this building.” The building was destroyed in a 2010 fire. The floors and roof are gone, as is the tower. According to the new owner, only the archway over the entrance might be salvageable.
• Kellogg/Valentine-Branch Gymnasium [Built: 1927. 2016 Status: Still standing. Map.]: Brick rectangular building, originally named “Kellogg Gymnasium” and renamed after doctors Valentine and Branch following a 1963 renovation. Listed as a non-contributing building according to the National Register of Historic Places, primarily due to poor condition and significant alterations.
According to a 1983 NPS report, the 1963 addition “sufficiently alters the structure to consider it non-contributing to the district.” However the report does say future rehabilitation of the gymnasium “may possibly return it to contributing status.” In 1983 eight of the arched windows were intact and the former portico had been enclosed for storage space.
• Kenwood Refectory [Built: 1923. 2016 Status: Burned and roof gone, walls still standing. Map. Streetview.]: Campus dining facility, built between Crary Hall and Wallace Hall and connected to each via a brick arcade. Kenwood Refectory notably contained the bell from the original Crary Hall, recast and installed in the belfry of the refectory after the first Crary Hall fire. It is not known what happened to the bell after the Kenwood Refectory fire.
The refectory was once considered to be one of the finest Georgian Revival buildings in the area. Dining facilities were on the first and second floors while the basement contained a student activities center. The refectory went through renovations in 1974, while its kitchen and storage rooms were renovated in 1979.
• New Jersey House aka Model Home [Built: 1892. 2016 Status: Overgrown, still standing. Map. Streetview.]: Built with funds donated by the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the New Jersey Conference. Two-story home with sixteen rooms, specialized instruction in dressmaking, housekeeping, millinery, and sewing.
It was the first building erected on the higher plateau of the hill and oldest remaining building on campus. Was used for various purposes during its operational life, including private residence, dorm, faculty apartment, and classrooms.
• Steam Plant [Built: 1923. 2016 Status: Overgrown, but still standing. Map. Streetview.]: This 60-foot-by-60-foot building, constructed of handmade brick, housed coal-fired engines capable of providing power the entire campus. Erected at the same time as Wallace Hall, and the coal-fired steam plant was still serving the heating needs of the school by the mid-1980s.
• Wallace Hall [Built: 1923. 2016 Status: Still standing. Map. Streetview.]: This three-story dormitory was built immediately following the housing issues presented by the displaced students after the first Crary Hall fire. Property was purchased in 1922 and in July of that year construction was expedited. The building was finished in August of 1923, in time for the fall term. Females resided in Crary Hall, males in Wallace Hall.
It has a floor plan similar to Crary Hall: Head resident’s apartment and a lounge on the first floor, in the basement was laundry and rec room. The wood siding on the top floor was added later to match Crary Hall’s upper wooden floor. Wallace Hall was partially renovated in 1970, and later burned (but was not destroyed) in a 1983 fire.
[ source ]
• Sheeley-Drew Centennial Science Hall [Built: 1968. 2016 Status: Still standing. Map. Streetview.]: Due to its recent establishment and lack of architectural significance, this building is listed as a non-contributing structure of Morristown on the National Register.
The two-story, flat-roofed structure is unspectacular, but arguably in the best condition of all remaining structures. It has a low profile and does not interfere with the other historic buildings on the property.
Morristown contributing structures part of the 1983 National Register ballot that are no longer standing:
• Carriger House [Built: 1890. 2016 Status: Demolished. Map. Streetview.]: The Carriger House was built by the railroad companies in 1890 and obtained by Morristown Normal & Industrial College in 1895. For almost one hundred years it served as the school President’s home residence. It was abandoned after the school closed in 1994 and demolished some time after 2009.
As of May 2016 it is still visible on Bing Map’s birds-eye view.
• Braden House [Built: 1925. 2016 Status: Demolished. Map.]: One-story wood-frame building adjacent to Carriger House, originally served as a hospital. Demolished some time before 2009.
• Child Development Center [Built: 1925. 2016 Status: Demolished. Map.]: one-story frame building with an addition on the north elevation. It previously served as the residence of the caretaker of the physical plant, and later the Progressive Child Development Center. No longer standing today, year demolished unknown.
• William & Sarah Boyd Memorial Shop [Built: 1907. 2016 Status: Demolished? Map.]: Rectangular structure, used initially as a boarding hall and later an industrial training shop for boys. According to the 1983 NPS survey, this building was not in use at the time and its windows were boarded up (photo at right from 1983 survey).
Looking at the 1983 photo, then the birds-eye view, it appears as if the building is gone and a small forest has grown back in its place.