Reconstruction Period Research Forum
William Councill A&M's First Leader
William Councill A&M's 1st leader
Born a slave, sold on an auction block, held in bondage as a field hand and orphaned while still young, William Hooper Councill remained illiterate until he was 17 years old.
Few people with such humble beginnings achieved as much and helped as many as Councill, who, at age 27, became the first president of what is now known as Alabama A&M University in 1875. Over the next 10 years he would also found the city's first black newspaper and St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church, which still exists today.
As a free man after the Civil War, Councill seized the opportunity to get an education, said Dr. Richard D. Morrison, who served as president of Alabama A&M University from 1962 until 1984.
"He devoted all his energy into getting an education," he said. "He qualified himself when there weren't any other Negroes qualified."
Born on the Councill plantation near Fayetteville, N.C., on July 12, 1848, Councill was 5 when his father escaped to Canada in 1854. Councill never again saw his father, or two older brothers, who were sold to slave owners somewhere in Alabama.
When the slave-holding Councill family went broke, William, his sick mother and his brother, Cicero, were held for sale in Richmond, Va. Slave traders bought the three of them in 1859 and brought them to Alabama.
D.C. Humphreys bought them in Huntsville and took them to Jackson County. They worked in the fields until sometime during the Civil War. In 1864, Humphreys began working with Union officials, and Councill and his family moved north.
After the war, in 1865, 17-year-old Councill came back to Stevenson in Jackson County and worked at a federal encampment.
A group of Quakers opened a school with the support of the Freedmen's Bureau that year to educate blacks. Councill was among the school's first pupils. From 1865 through 1867, Councill attended the Quaker school and received private instruction from other whites.
In 1868, Councill had done so well in his studies that he was chosen to be a teacher in the Jackson County school system.
However, some whites in Jackson County violently opposed education for blacks. Activities by malevolent whites and the Ku Klux Klan forced Councill to flee to Huntsville.
In the more liberal atmosphere of Huntsville, Councill started a school for blacks in 1869. A year later, Councill began teaching for the Madison County school system in a school west of Huntsville. He was named principal of the Normal School in 1871.
When the Huntsville school system began in 1875, Councill was named principal of the city's black school.
By this time, Councill could see the need for more education himself. So he took private lessons from S.J. Mayhew, the first superintendent of Huntsville's city schools. Councill also received instruction in mathematics and sciences from Charlie Shepherd, Carlos G. Smith, Ned I. Mastin and other prominent white men in Huntsville.
From 1872 to 1874, Councill, an outspoken Republican, served as a clerk for the Alabama Legislature.
When he was tapped in 1874 by President U.S. Grant to serve as receiver clerk for the U.S. Land Office of the Northern District of Alabama, Council declined.
By then the political winds were shifting toward the Democrats, and Councill changed courses.
Councill resigned his job in the Legislature and turned down further political appointments, instead devoting all his time to education, Morrison said.
"He had his mind made up that he wanted to establish a school for his people," Morrison said.
In 1873, a bill was introduced in the Legislature to establish a "Colored Normal School" in Huntsville to educate black teachers to teach black children. Councill was chosen to head the school.
Another bill was introduced before the state board of education for four land-grant schools for whites and four for blacks. Through his contacts and their influence, Councill's Normal School was chosen.
What became Alabama A&M University received in May 1875 a $1,000 appropriation from the state. It opened with 61 students and graduated its first class in 1877. The appropriation was increased to $2,000 in 1878.
With Reconstruction under way, Republicans began losing their power in Alabama, so Councill became a Democrat.
Though it drew criticism from his former political friends, it was a savvy move, Morrison said.
"He knew he had to have the cooperation of whites who would help him," he said. "He knew how to manipulate the system to get what he wanted. When the Democrats came to power, they helped him."
Councill was active in other areas as well. In 1877, he launched Huntsville's first black publication, the Huntsville Herald. It operated until 1884.
He studied law, and though he was the first black to be admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1883, he never practiced law.
An ordained elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Councill founded St. John's AME Church in 1885.
Councill could have risen to higher office in the AME church, said Dr. Homer McCall, the current pastor of St. John's, but education was his primary focus, he said.
"He could have been a bishop," McCall said. "He wanted to provide a way for every black student to get an education."