Samford University was founded by Baptists as Howard College in Marion, Alabama, in 1841. Located in Birmingham since 1887, the school is Alabama's largest private university and the state's only private doctoral/research university as classified by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. Samford continues to value its historic relationship with the state's Baptists.
In 1841 a group of Baptists acquired land in the wealthy city of Marion and invited the Alabama Baptist State Convention to establish on the land a new school. Howard College, named in honor of English prison reformer John Howard, thrived until its near-destruction by fire in1854. The Howard community was still recovering from that tragedy when the Civil War began. Students, faculty and even the president volunteered for military service in1861. Howard was barely functioning as a college when the Confederate government sought to convert its campus into a military hospital in 1863. Howard's trustees agreed to the arrangement, and although the college ceased to function for the rest of the war, remaining faculty did offer basic instruction to soldiers recovering at the hospital. Federal troops occupied Howard College for a short time after the war and sheltered freed slaves on its campus.
The college reopened in 1865 but failed to find stable leadership until the presidency of former Confederate Army officer James T. Murfee (1871-1887,) who brought to Howard a military atmosphere that lasted until the early 20th century.
After the war Marion faded in economic and cultural importance as declining enrollments, local interracial strife and bankruptcy led Howard officials and the Alabama Baptist State Convention to a difficult decision. In the 1880s boosters from Birmingham, Marion’s new industrial neighbor to the north, promised to help the college grow if it would relocate to the East Lake community near the booming city. The college accepted Birmingham’s offer and moved to East Lake in 1887, dividing Alabama Baptists and hurting the feelings of many in Marion. President Murfee opposed the move and remained on the old campus to form Marion Military Institute.
Unfortunately, Birmingham’s economy fell on hard times just as Howard College settled into its new home. Visions of a rich endowment and grand new college buildings were soon put away. Optimism and local support eventually returned, but although the college continued to grow in East Lake, hopes for a "greater Howard" were not realized for more than half a century.
Admitting female students helped Howard College survive the lean years of the early 20th century. After a brief but promising experiment in the 1890s, Howard became fully and permanently coeducational in 1913, just before cycles of war and economic depression again threatened to ruin the college.
Howard president Harwell Goodwin "Major" Davis (1939-1958) sought ways to protect the school from hard times during WWII, winning a contract with the federal government to host a branch of the U.S. Navy’s V-12 training program. The Navy brought Howard money and men at a time when both were in short supply at the college.
Homewood and The Greater Howard
Increased post-war enrollment made relocation of Howard College ever more appealing and president Davis had saved enough of the V-12 funds to allow Howard to leave behind the campus it was quickly outgrowing. By the late 1940s Howard’s leaders had selected a site for a spacious new campus in the Homewood community south of Birmingham. The college relocated to its current home in 1957 as Davis’ ambitious architectural vision for the new campus slowly took shape.
Completion of the Georgian-Colonial-style campus fell to the next president, Leslie S. Wright (1957-1983). The college acquired Cumberland School of Law in 1961, added new degree programs and reorganized to achieve university status in 1965. The name "Howard University," was already taken so the trustees chose to name the new university in honor of the family of longtime trustee Frank Park Samford. Howard College of Arts and Sciences remains Samford's academic core.
President Thomas E. Corts (1983-2006) led Samford during a period of increased national and international recognition and respect. Enrollment, facilities, endowment and academic and athletic programs grew rapidly, thanks in large part to financial gifts totaling more than $100 million from benefactor Ralph W. Beeson and his extended family.
Under current president Andrew Westmoreland, Samford enjoys an endowment of more than $220 million and eight thriving academic divisions:
- School of the Arts
- Howard College of Arts and Sciences
- Brock School of Business
- Beeson School of Divinity
- Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education and Professional Studies
- Cumberland School of Law
- Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing
- McWhorter School of Pharmacy