Edward Waters College carries over 150 years of influence and history

Florida’s oldest HBCU was founded by AME church in 1866 to educate freedmen

A look back by Melanie Lawson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The oldest historically Black college in the state of Florida is right here in Jacksonville. Edward Waters College was founded in 1866 by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to educate freedmen.

The school has had its challenges but continues to provide a space for all students to have access to higher education.

TV personality and now Edward Waters College professor Rahman Johnson is a notable EWC graduate. He received his degree more than 20 years ago, but his roots were planted in the 1920s with his grandmother, who was also an alum.

“In order to come here, she caught the pulpwood truck from Starke, which is where our family settled after reconstruction,” Johnson said.

Johnson now walks in his grandmother’s footsteps showing off the Centennial Library. It’s the only building that survived Jacksonville’s great fire of 1901. The flames took out most of downtown, but it couldn’t kill the spirit of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was determined to educate freedmen when no one else would.

“The AME church was the oldest African-American denomination in the country. It said, ‘We don’t know that we can send money. We can’t force the government to give you 40 acres and a mule, but we can make sure you’re educated,’” Johnson said.

The school first opened in Live Oak as Brown Theological Institute as a space to educate preachers. A few years after the school opened, it abruptly closed because it ran out of money. It reopened in the late 1870s in Live Oak, but the goal to educate was on the move to the big city of Jacksonville, where it relocated in 1883. Less than 10 years later, it took on the name Edward Waters College with the support, once again, of the AME Church, named after the third bishop, Edward Waters.

“The research that I’ve done, they’ve been able to do more and say ‘We’re bigger than Live Oak. We’re bigger than just educating preachers. We have a chance to empower the community,’ which is why the mission of Edward Waters College is access and opportunity,” Johnson said.

A historical marker was placed in Live Oak in 2017 to mark the original location thanks in part to Lilly Vereen, a member of the class of 1969 and National Alumni President.

“I have a love for Edward Waters. Edward Waters prepared me, helped me to reach some of my goals that I wanted to reach. Without that educational background perhaps, I would not have made it. So, my love for Edward Waters is still there and it will still be there, and I still have the Tiger spirit,” Vereen said.

Vereen wrote a spirit song for homecoming in 2008. Her Tiger spirit shines through the ups and the downs, like when EWC was placed on probation in 2004 during a plagiarism scandal. It was years later that a former sheriff was brought in to elevate the school.

“Now you really don’t want me to tell you about Nat. I love Nat, Nat to me was a very serious-minded person, and he did the job. He was a man that what he said he was going to do, he did it without any hesitation,” Vereen said.

EWC graduate and former football star Nat Glover took the job as interim president in 2010 and for seven years he worked to raise the bar. Glover set the school up for academic success. He helped negotiate $4.4 million for the newly opened athletic field and$ 4 million in his safe neighborhoods budget to renovate aging dormitories, just to name a couple of his accomplishments. Glover was a turning point for Edward Waters College and understood the power of education.

“We still are still behind to a great degree, and I think the basis of that is education and the access of education. You know, when you do not get an education, that’s a direct line to the criminal justice system,” Glover said.

Dr. Zachary Faison followed Glover as the 30th president of EWC. Faison pays homage to the past but is focused on the future. He is the nation’s youngest sitting leader of a historically black college or university and he understands that Historically Black Colleges are essential to this nation.

“Edward Waters College and HBCUs are responsible for the Black middle and professional class -- 75% of all black Ph.D.’s are HBCU graduates. About 46% of all HBCU business executives are HBCU graduates. So, when you talk about the Black middle class, the Black professional class -- doctors, lawyers, teachers -- you are talking about persons who were largely trained at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Faison said.

Eighty percent of the students at Edward Waters College are first-generation college students, so they’re establishing a new tradition. It is one that sometimes requires a personalized push toward success.

“I’m calling students at home and obviously pre-COVID, I’m knocking on dorm rooms. We consider ourselves brothers and sisters, so when we have alumni meetings, it’s a family reunion,” Johnson said.

It seems to be working. Even during a pandemic, Edward Waters College hit its highest enrollment in 15 years.

The school is poised to become a university with a graduate program on the horizon, and the leadership is working to move up to a higher sports division. It must be that Tiger Spirit that has kept the school going and growing for more than 150 years.

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Anchor on The Morning Show team and reporter specializing on health issues.