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Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Auburn Landed a University

 By Janet Gresham

I live in SEC Country where college football is way of life, and tailgate picnics are major social functions. Just watch an ESPN Game Day preview to see the zealous fans and what’s cookin’ in the parking lot. Then, in the case of my alma mater, note the crowd’s devotion as Auburn’s eagle lifts off for its inspiring flight through the stadium.

That “War Eagle” battle cry coupled with the eagle release is a grand tradition, but before an eagle ever landed on the plains, there was a bitter college rivalry across Central Alabama, and it wasn’t about football.
The competitors were my hometown of Greensboro and my college town of Auburn, and the prize was an institute of higher learning. Now, I might mention that Methodists and the media were the chief cheerleaders for each side, and despite initial rejection, Auburn owes much to those Methodists. Otherwise, the state’s “cow college” where I really could see cattle from my dorm might not exist! 

Disagreement over location of a new denominational college began back in the mid-19th Century when southern planters decided they wanted their sons educated closer to home. Why send them up north to Yale and Harvard when they could build a fine institution in the South? So, in 1854 when the Alabama Methodist Conference met, its delegates deadlocked on a choice between Auburn and Greensboro, and they voted to award the prize to the town offering $100,000.

A race to raise funds began, prompting a war of words from west to east and east to west. One delegate who supported Greensboro even took the floor at one meeting and declared that East Alabama should not be considered, because he had visited the area, and “Everywhere I went, poverty stared me in the face!”

The editor of the Auburn Gazette responded by asserting that Auburn was best, because its citizens weren’t rowdy like the ones in Greensboro. In fact, he warned, the West Alabama community found it necessary to pass laws against drunkenness, fighting and swearing. Then, he further stoked the “discussion” when he said that Greensboro was “located in a sickly prairie area” and could only be reached by bad roads.

The editor of the Greensboro Beacon admitted that while there was some disorder in the town, under no circumstances was it sickly!

When the Conference met again in the Dallas County town of Summerfield, Greensboro produced pledges of $113,000 compared to Auburn’s $100,000. Since both had raised the required amount, a committee was appointed to solve the dilemma. Greensboro won the committee’s support, but the group suggested locating another college at Auburn. Greensboro delegates disagreed, saying the conference could not support both. 

Still, the controversy wasn’t over. A few months later, Greensboro out-pledged Auburn again, even bringing three supporters who were ready to increase the sum if necessary. Yet, delegates debated the issue for three more days!

Greensboro finally won, but Auburnites were so incensed confident that they determined to build their college anyway. So, the East Alabama Male College (known as Auburn even back then) was chartered in 1856, the same year as The Southern University in Greensboro. Later, the Methodists agreed to take on Auburn’s institution as well.

But when the War Between the States took its students to battle, Auburn had to close. 

After reopening in 1866, times were so hard that by 1872 the Methodist Church transferred control of Auburn to the State of Alabama. It became a land-grant institution under the Morrill Act, and its name was changed to the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. Later, the college was renamed the Alabama Polytechnic Institute and still later, Auburn University.

Today, Auburn is one of the largest universities in the South, and its outreach benefits millions worldwide. But over here in the Black Belt, we especially appreciate the Cooperative Extension programs, agricultural research and Rural Studio.

So what became of Southern University?

In 1918, it merged with Birmingham College to become one of the finest liberal arts institutions, Birmingham Southern College.

Unfortunately, the university's grand Tudor-style building that later housed other schools and was the major architectural landmark of Greensboro was destroyed by a tornado in 1973.  


  1. Carolyn Payne LambertAugust 6, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    I am sending this to my grandson(age 13) who is a big, big time AUM fan who lives in Auburn......He is also a good Methodist......He will like to read this article.....
    Carolyn Lambert

  2. Where did you get the print of the old Southern University?

  3. Hi Mary Beth!
    I found it in an old book written by a former professor at Southern University. It's a great print!

  4. Just checked, and it was a student who wrote it, not a professor. I just don't remember the name of the book.