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The Origin of WSSU

Dr. Atkins’ Vision

Having worked as principal at Depot Street grade school, the largest grade school for African-Americans in North Carolina, Simon Green Atkins was well acquainted with the shortcomings of education for African-Americans in the late 19th century. His inspiration to found a school that would prepare young people to meet community needs through academic study and technical training led to the 1892 charter of “The Slater Industrial Academy”. In an atmosphere charged with social unrest, political turmoil, and economic hardship, Simon Atkins’ good will, courage, and determination paved the way for Slater to develop, over seventy-seven years, from a struggling private school to a teachers college and on to a flourishing university.

Slater Industrial Academy began at what became the corner of Stadium Drive and Atkins Street in Winston-Salem. The first class of twenty-five students started in September 1893 with only one teacher. The school’s single building was a 20′ by 40′ one-room frame structure with a full basement. Along with basic academic subjects, students learned skills such as carpentry, brick making, wheelwrighting, blacksmithing, cooking, and sewing. In spite of its humble origins, Slater’s program soon drew recognition and praise. Colonel Alexander K. McClure, editor of the Philadelphia Times, observed that students were taught “…with a degree of method and skill that inspire[d] the highest measure of pride…”. The first brick building on campus, Lamson Hall, was dedicated in 1900.

A 1902 report from Simon Atkins to the superintendent of Public Instruction states that Slater Industrial Academy controlled over 100 acres of land, owned three horses with wagons and harness, and a “complete outfit” of farming equipment. Slater also boasted a herd of 120 cattle including thoroughbred Jerseys and the finest Guernsey bull in the area. Faculty were the only paid employees; students did all the “ordinary work”, including cleaning and caring for buildings and grounds and laundry. In 1903, there were twelve teachers at Slater and 300 students were enrolled.

Recognizing a great need for trained elementary school teachers, the General Assembly voted in 1905 to supply modest funding for “Normal Schools”. (Normal schools were intended to offer high school graduates a two-year program in primary education.) Access to State funds gave hope to financially struggling Slater that was reorganized as one of North Carolina’s Normal Schools. The funds provided by the State, however, were inadequate to run the school. In fact, programs had to be cut back for a time because important philanthropists from the northeast who misunderstood the situation reduced their financial support.

The success of Simon Atkins’ program to educate African-Americans depended from the beginning on interracial collaboration. The school continuously relied on forward-thinking whites for both financial and political support. Henry E. Fries, William A. Blair, and David S. Reid were among the prominent members of the Winston-Salem community who served many years on its Board of Trustees.

Through the determination of its leaders and the generosity of its supporters, Slater’s programs did expand and its enrollment grew. The1912-1913 catalog describes the school’s educational offerings under three departments: the Normal Department (designed to prepare teachers for rural public schools in the state), the Industrial Department (intended to train students in practical, industrial arts including sewing, cooking, laundry work, domestic economy, carpentry, poultry raising, dairy and agriculture), and the Music Department. Slater gardens provided for the school’s needs as well as for the immediate Columbian Heights community. In addition, academic programs were offered in natural sciences, geometry, Latin, one modern language, and social sciences. These courses allowed students to meet requirements for college admission.

The General Assembly recognized the school for outstanding work in training primary level teachers, elevated its status and changed its name to Winston-Salem Teachers College in 1925. Slater Industrial Academy became thereby the first four-year teachers college for African-Americans in the United States.

In 1928, Winston-Salem Teachers College’s total enrollment reached 1,051 students. According to the 1927-1928 catalog, the College had a School of Home Economics, a Department of Business and Commerce, and a Department of Vocal and Instrumental Music. At that time, the College campus consisted “…of ten large, splendidly equipped buildings, most of which are fire-proof and modern in every particular. All the buildings are steam heated and electric lighted,…[All have] running water with complete modern sanitary equipment.”

In 1969, Dr. Atkins’ school joined the University of North Carolina System as Winston-Salem State University. Forty years later, in 2009, Winston-Salem State University offers forty-six undergraduate and ten graduate degree programs. Almost six thousand students are enrolled, and there are over two hundred full-time faculty. Although Dr. Atkins would not recognize his campus, his selfless devotion to the goal of high-quality education for all continues to inspire the work of the institution.


Murphy, E. Louise. The History of Winston-Salem State University 1892-1995, Virginia Beach: Donning Company, 1992.

The Winston-Salem Teachers College Annual Catalogue, 1927-1928, Winston-Salem.

Winston-Salem State University, 2007-2009 Undergraduate Catalog, , accessed online March 9, 2009.

Winston Salem State University, 2007-2009 Graduate Catalog, , accessed online March 9, 2009.

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