University Roots Go Deep In Southern History - TribPapers

University Roots Go Deep In Southern History

Mars Hill University Historical Roadside Marker. Photo By Clint Parker.

Mars Hill – The historical roadside marker reads, “Mars Hill College: Baptist; coeducational. Founded 1856 as French Broad Baptist Institute. Name changed 1859. Senior college since 1962.” It sets off of Highway 213, which runs through present-day Mars Hill University.

Mars Hill College has a rich and storied history, rooted in its humble beginnings as the French Broad Baptist Academy. Back in 1856, Edward Carter generously donated the land for the institute, and with the support of local sponsors, the necessary financial resources were secured. However, the funds proved to be insufficient, and an extraordinary turn of events unfolded. A slave named Joe, owned by trustee J. W. Anderson, was taken and placed in the Asheville jail as collateral by the contractor involved. In a remarkable display of community support, the required funds were raised through public gifts, and the construction of the institute’s buildings was completed by the end of that year.

In 1858, the North Carolina General Assembly bestowed the name Mars Hill College upon the institution, drawing inspiration from the Biblical passage Acts 17:22, which reads: “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars Hill.” Despite the challenging times, the college remained open during the initial years of the Civil War, only to be temporarily closed in 1863. The college’s buildings were later occupied by both Union and Confederate troops in 1865, resulting in damages to several structures, including the burning of a dormitory and a teacher’s home.

Undeterred by the adversities faced, Mars Hill College reopened its doors after the war’s conclusion. However, financial instability continued to plague the institution, and it experienced ongoing struggles throughout the late nineteenth century. Between 1865 and 1897, the college saw fourteen different presidents in its leadership.

In 1897, the trustees managed to recruit Robert Lee Moore, an alumnus of Wake Forest University, to assume the presidency. Moore embarked on a mission to reform the college, implementing changes to the curriculum and establishing clear guidelines regarding tuition and other important matters. Under Moore’s visionary leadership, Mars Hill College regained prominence and achieved junior college status in 1921. The following year, Moore retired, passing the torch to Hoyt Blackwell, a respected professor of Greek and Latin.

During Blackwell’s tenure, Mars Hill College evolved into a four-year institution, and in 1964, the college proudly awarded its first baccalaureate degrees. Notably, in 1961, a year before James Meredith’s historic battle for admission to the University of Mississippi, Mars Hill College displayed remarkable progressiveness by becoming one of the earliest educational institutions in the South to welcome African-American students. 

The first black student to enroll was Oralene Graves, the great-great-granddaughter of Joe Anderson, the very slave who had been seized as collateral during the college’s founding. To honor Joe’s memory, his grave was moved to the campus in 1932, and a monument was erected in his memory.

In August 2013, the institution changed its name to Mars Hill University, to reflect the institution’s expansion, both in terms of enrollment and variety of offerings. “We believe that changing the designation from college to university is one that positions the institution to be recognized for what we really are,” said Dan G. Lunsford,an alumnus named interum president. “The name ‘university’ denotes a greater variety of offerings, and it indicates the opportunity to obtain undergraduate and graduate education in selected fields as part of the Mars Hill experience.”

Presently, Mars Hill University encompasses over 200 acres of beautiful land, adorned with 32 buildings. With a current enrollment of nearly 1,500 students, the college offers bachelor’s degrees in 31 different majors. Notably, the college’s renowned dance team, the “Bailey Mountain Cloggers,” has earned an impressive thirteen national championships, further adding to the institution’s vibrant and diverse culture.