by Stacey Watson, Fort Valley State University graduate student of history and Wildcat Dreams special contributor
The beginning of Fort Valley State University started with one man’s dream to provide a school of higher education to African Americans in the south. John Wesley Davison, founder and principal of Fort Valley High and Industrial School, devised a plan that would provide a quality education to African-American students in the south.
Davison’s birth came at a monumental time for African Americans. He was born Sept. 15, 1865 a few months before the 13th Amendment passed, abolishing slavery in the United States. Born in Crawford County near Hickory Grove he received his early education from a prominent southern family led by A. C Murchisonnear his home. Working on a field day and night, he managed to learn by reciting lessons with Murchison’s children. After leaving Crawford County, Davison relocated to Fulton County where he enrolled at Atlanta University. There, he took classes preparing him for a career in education.
After he graduated from college, Davison moved to the small city of Fort Valley, where he taught out of one of the rooms inside his home.
This one-room classroom became the foundation of his new private school in 1890 which would later become Fort Valley State University. Davison continued to teach inside his one-room classroom until 1895.
The educator decided to apply for a charter to create a public school that would educate African-Americans. Early in October 1895, Davison and several men started planning the school. In November, he led a group of 18 men (15 blacks and three whites) to petition the Superior Court of Houston County in Perry to legalize the school on November 6, 1895. Two months after the application on Jan. 6, 1896, the charter was approved, and the school, which was named Fort Valley High and Industrial School was incorporated by the Superior Court of Houston County.
After seeing the potential growth of the school, Davison traveled north seeking donations and endorsements to acquire funding for the construction of a school building. The contributions he received funded the construction of a two-story building on six-acres of barren land. When the school formally opened it had two teachers and a hundred students which lasted for four months.
Davison was under a lot of pressure to secure more funding to pay the expenditures of the school. As a result he invested his own money, mortgaged his home, farm and relied on funding from Fort Valley’s African American community. The future of the school was bleak until the arrival of James H. Torbert. An Atlanta University graduate, Davison hired him to be the assistant principal and financial agent.Torbert took a student quartet with him up north where they went door-to door singing for funding from wealthy, white northerners. This proved successful keeping the doors open to the school.
As the school became financially stable, a Board of Trustees comprised of Northern philanthropists was created that included supporters of the Tuskegee Machine and Hampton. Unlike Davison, they believed in an industrial education focused on trades and vocational education. This was inspired, a speech given by Booker T. Washington on Sept. 18, 1895, called the “Atlanta Compromise.” During Washington’s address which was given before a white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Ga., he said that blacks would be content with living “by the production of their hands,” rather than obtaining a liberal arts education.
Now with funding in the hands of the northerners, Davison would have to convince them he would to change the curriculum. Unconvinced, the philanthropists and trustees feared Davison would not convert to industrial education. They also feared the future of the school could face another financial hardship if he remained principal. They immediately searched for his replacement and quickly dismissed him from the school in 1903.
Even though Davison was dismissed from the school of which he started, he was able to see his dream come true. Despite the hardships he faced, in 1901 under Davison’s leadership the schools property value was worth $10,000. Young men were taught farming, carpentry, free hand and mechanical drawing. Twenty acres of leased land was cultivated by students providing them with hands-on-experience in gardening and vegetation. The young women were taught domestic science including dressmaking, cooking and laundering.
His devotion along with Torbert’s persistence and dedication helped to increase the enrollment and keep Davison’s dream alive. In 1904, second principal Henry H. Hunt was hired. He and his wife Florence J. Hunt secured large donations thus expanding the school and its programs. Although he modeled the school after the Tuskegee Machine which Davison opposed he did create a teaching training program in 1927. John W. Davison did not live to see this day. He died of pleurisy at his home in Atlanta, Ga. on March 29, 1922. He was buried at South View Cemetery in Atlanta on April 1, 1922.
Atlanta Constitution, July 20, 1901, Atlanta, Georgia.
James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935; The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; 1988,115-122.
Atlanta Constitution, July 20, 1901, Atlanta, Georgia.
Atlanta Independent, April 6, 1922, Atlanta, Georgia.