Alabama A&M University’s founder had faith that he could educate others

Hidden History

(Photo: Alabama A&M University)

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MADISON COUNTY, Ala. - William Hooper Councill was born a slave in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but in his lifetime Councill became a teacher, a politician, an author, and the father of Alabama A&M University.

It started on the auction block

"We sit today, stand today on the shoulders of others who had preceded us," said Alabama A&M University President Andrew Hugine.

William Hooper Councill was born a slave in 1848 and sold to Huntsville Judge David C. Humphreys when he was 9 years old.

"It was here where Councill would be sold at Green Bottom Inn," said Eddie Davis Jr. - author of the Greatest Negro the Race Ever Produced.

Green Bottom Inn

William Hooper Councill was sold as a slave at the auction block of Green Bottom Inn - a former Huntsville hotel. The land is now the Alabama A&M campus student center and bookstore. Photo courtesy: Alabama A&M University.

William Hooper Councill escaped to the north, but after the Civil War he returned to North Alabama at the age of 17 - to a Quaker school for former slaves that biographer Eddie Davis says was a target of the Ku Klux Klan.

"When he was in Averyville their houses were shot into, were burned, the school was almost burned as well," said Davis.

Councill was 'loyal' to his dream

Those three years would be his only formal education, but it was the foundation for a dream bigger than just his lifetime.

"He was loyal to what he believed in," said Hugine.

Photo Courtesy: Alabama A&M University

William Hooper Councill became a teacher - starting the first school for blacks in Madison County "and not to be confused with the Lincoln School off of Meridian Street," said Davis. "There was a Lincoln School on the property of Ruben Jones in 1869 in the vicinity where Sam's Club is now, off of University Drive."

Councill was only 22.

"If you ask the question what it is that will make a difference in someone's life for our people, it is education," said Hugine.

Hugine said Councill had a fighter's spirit.

The birth of Alabama A&M University

"This institution was founded in 1875, putting that in perspective that was shortly after Emancipation Proclamation," said Hugine. "So it really took a person of courage in order to do that."

Councill had the courage to go into politics, lobbying the Alabama legislature to do more.

"When we think about starting something we generally have resources upon which to do it," said Hugine. "He didn't have resources. All he had was faith that it could be done."

With a $1,000 grant, Councill started the State Colored Normal School in the basement of a Huntsville church.

"The legislature wanted to create a school for Negros," said Davis. 

Black liberation

Courtesy: Alabama A&M University

Councill raised enough funds to move his school out of the church and plant the first building in 1890, where the Von Braun Center stands today in Downtown Huntsville. Eight years later, Councill relocated the State Colored Normal School on the same hill where he was once sold as property.

"Forty-four years later [from the time he was sold at Green Bottom Inn]," said Davis, "Councill would return and establish his school that once sold him at an auction block and now he would use this site to elevate and liberate his people."

On that hill now stands Alabama A&M. He led the institution for 32 years.

"He wouldn't fathom or imagine he would one day return and establish what we see today," said Davis.

William Hooper Councill was once a slave - a human bought and sold. His life, his pursuit of freedom was a vivid example of not only enduring, but prevailing over times that are hard to imagine. He was a man whose dream of education is a reality for so many today.

A lasting memorial will honor William Hooper Councill forever

Alabama A&M is expected to erect the new William Hooper Councill Eternal Flame Memorial by homecoming this fall. This is a lasting tribute to the university's founding father.

William Hooper Councill and his wife are buried at the current site where construction will take place.

To learn more about the "Greatest Negro the Race Ever Produced" by Eddie Davis Jr. - a copy of his book can be purchased online on Amazon.

"God forbid that anybody black or white should ever be forced to battle against such odds."

William Hooper Councill said this during his 1899 speech. The Colored American Newspaper in Washington, D.C. quoted him.

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