William Burns Paterson - Founder of Alabama State University
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Born in Tullibody on 9th February 1850, William
Burns Paterson was part of a large family of farm labourers and brewery workers.
William lived in School Wynd,
Tullibody. The Abercromby family, probably at their home Tullibody House,
employed his father as a gardener. William left school at the age of 12. Aged
17, he worked his passage as a deckhand on a freighter sailing to New York.
For three years, often walking long distances with his dog, gun and fishing
line, he attempted to visit every state. In 1870 he worked on the railroads
from New Orleans to Hale County, Alabama. For six months he worked with a
dredging crew on the Black Warrior River. His educational work began with
the Negro ditching crew asked him to teach them to read and write, which he
did during their noon breaks. Paterson opened a day school, at first under
a brush shelter and afterwards in a log cabin called Hopewell, which was about
four miles from Greensboro. With the help of the
members from two Baptist churches, one white, one black, he was now teaching
women and children. In 1871, he moved his school to Greensboro. A year later
he had built a frame structure, which he called 'Tullibody Academy for Negroes'.
Due to his work at Greensboro, William had been asked to be the head of the
state-funded normal school and university being established at Marian. Almost
as soon as he took up his new post, Maggie Flack arrived at the school. After
teaching for three years, she was engaged to organise a music department at
William Peterson's school in Marian. A year later she and William were married
at Selma. By 1886 they had five children. By 1886 the Lincoln School and Normal
University had together almost 400 students. They were both well managed establishments
and the graduates were in demand everywhere as teachers. One night in late
December 1886, arsonists set fire to the main building and burnt it to the
ground. After the fire, antagonism surfaced against this centre of racial
integration and black education. The students attending the white Baptist
owned Howard College, clashed openly with the black students. It was then
decided to move the normal department of the school to Montgomery. The Patersons
had no sooner settled there when they found that the school was to be reduced
to an industrial school, which would not qualify for state funding. So the
Patersons merged with a Missionary Association School. With nine unpaid teachers
and virtually no resources, Maggie and William opened their school in October
1887. For the next two years they struggled to keep the school afloat, then
in 1889. State funding was allowed; but the school was reduced from a university
to a normal and industrial training school.
The members of black churches raised money and William built a three-storey building on the outskirts of Montgomery, which he named Tullibody Hall. During the next three years the Patersons built a house and a greenhouse and started a nursery business to help support the school and the family. They awoke one night and looked out to find a cross shaped scarecrow burning in their yard and note left on the door warning the 'nigger teacher' to be out of town in 24 hours or have his house burned down with his family in it. The next night the Klu Klux Klansmen returned to keep their promise. They saw William sitting on the porch quietly rocking back and forth with a book on his lap. As they drew nearer, they could see what the darkness had hidden - five armed men behind William, all confederate veterans - the best shots in the county. The Klansmen about turned. Their need to defend themselves against attack seemed to end - but the Patersons stayed. In 1904, the year Maggie died of Bright's disease, the main building was again burnt to the ground. A stronger 'Tullibody Hall' replaced it two years later. By this time there were over 1000 students, but it was still not a college only an elementary school with industrial training.
William Burns Paterson died in 1915. Mr. and Mrs. Paterson are recognised as the founders of Alabama State Normal School for Coloured Students, which became Alabama State University. The College of Arts and Science 'William Paterson Hall' is named in his honour and the School of Music is named after his birthplace, 'Tullibody Hall'. The school was finally restored to its original status and became Alabama State University - almost 100 years after Williams's first tentative steps in education. William's birthday on 9 February has been celebrated every year since 1901 as Alabama State University Founder's Day.
In addition to starting Alabama State, Dr. Patterson, with his wife Margaret, started a small flower shop in Montgomery, which has grown over the years and is still in business today (August 2001) and is more than 100 years old. It is no longer owned by the Paterson family but is still a thriving business. They sold it in 1984. It consisted at that time of a retail flower shop, a wholesale florists with 3 branches in two states, and greenhouses with over 400,000 square feet under glass. There are still many family members who live in the area.
The picture of Dr. Paterson was sent to me by George Reid MSP, who received it from Alabama State University. On 11th September 2002, Mr. Reid made a speech in the Scottish Parliament in honour of Dr. Paterson.
Alabama State University - http://www.alasu.edu/asutoday/
- Alabama Historical Markers - Tullibody - William Burns Patterson (1850-1915) was 17 years old in 1867 when he arrived in New York from Tullibody, Scotland. By 1871, he had built a one-room schoolhouse called Tullibody Academy for Negroes in Greensboro, Alabama. He married the missionary teacher Margaret Flack in 1879. Together, they created a model school of its type. In 1887, the campus moved to Montgomery where the first Tullibody Hall was built in 1890. A brick building replaced the frame structure in 1906. Tullibody Fine Arts Center stands on the site of the earlier building... http://www.al.com/travel/index.ssf?historicalmarkers.html