“Africa is a rubber ball;
the harder you dash it to the ground,
the higher it will rise.”
-Melvin B. Tolson, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia
The universality of the African proverb (above) quoted by former poet laureate of Liberia Melvin B. Tolson, professor of English, speech, and drama at Langston University (1947-1965), is reflected in the inspiring story of Oklahoma’s only historically black college or university (HBCU)-Langston University. Born in turmoil, strengthened through adversity, Langston University today sits “high on a throne with royal mien.” She celebrated her centennial in March 1997 and has moved with confidence into a second century of excellence.
On the one-year anniversary of Oklahoma statehood, April 22, 1890, Langston City was officially established.
Promoted by its founders, one of whom was prominent African American Edwin P. McCabe, who was influential in the selection of the site of Langston University, the city of Langston had a population of 600 and had 25 retail businesses by 1892, the year in which a common school was built and opened with an enrollment of 135.
Since African Americans were not permitted to attend any of the institutions of higher education in Oklahoma Territory, black citizens appeared before the Oklahoma Industrial School and College Commission in July 1892 to petition that Langston have a college. Eventually, Territorial Governor William Gary Renfrow, who had vetoed a civil rights bill that would have disregarded segregation, proposed a reform bill establishing the university. It was founded as a land grant college through the Morrill Act of 1890 and officially established by House Bill 151 on March 12, 1897, as the Colored Agricultural and Normal University.
The purpose of the university was to instruct “both male and female Colored persons in the art of teaching various branches which pertain to a common school education and in such higher education as may be deemed advisable, and in the fundamental laws of the United States in the rights and duties of citizens in the agricultural, mechanical and industrial arts.” One stipulation was that the land on which the college would be built would have to be purchased by the citizens. Picnics, auctions, and bake sales were held to raise money, and the land was purchased within a year by black settlers determined to provide higher education for their children.
On September 3, 1898, the school was opened in a Presbyterian Church in Langston with an initial budget of $5,000. The first president was Dr. Inman E. Page (1898- 1915), the son of a former slave who had purchased freedom for himself and his family. During the Page administration, the campus expanded to 160 acres; enrollment increased from 41 to 650 and faculty from 4 to 35; classroom buildings and dormitories were constructed, and the curriculum was strengthened. The meager funding from the State Legislature was assisted by the Enabling Act of 1906 in which Section 13 of each township was set aside for the benefit of education. Langston received eventually 100,000 acres located primarily in western Oklahoma, with some acres in Logan County and a small number in New Mexico. Funds derived from rental and leasing of these lands have benefited the school greatly, as has the one-tenth of the New Morrill Act funds.
The current history-making activities are a continuation of a proud tradition of transforming challenges into progress, which demonstrates the academic excellence of Langston University in the 21st century.