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

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.

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