Born into slavery during the Civil War in Newbern, Alabama, Nathan B. Young was the son of Susan Smith and a father whose identity is not known. His mother was born in Chatham, Virginia, in 1842. But when she was 14, her master died and, in the settlement of his estate, she was sold to a slave trader for $750.The slave trader later sold her to a Newbern, Alabama, cotton planter for more than a 100 percent profit.
At the end of the Civil War, when Nathan was three years old, his mother escaped with him from the cotton plantation, and soon she had established her own home near Tuscaloosa. She met and married a local black man, Frank Young, who reared and gave his name to young Nathan. Nathan grew up in rural Alabama during the Reconstruction period, and he witnessed some of the Ku Klux Klan activities there.
Young's mother wanted him to receive an education and enrolled him first in a small ungraded school. Young's first efforts at receiving a formal education were at Talladega College, where he received a classical-type education in the normal school branch. After receiving his diploma, Young became principal of a secondary school in Jackson, Mississippi.
Deciding to make teaching his career, Young sought better preparation and went to Ohio to attend Oberlin College. Here he received a liberal arts education, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1888 and a Master of Arts degree in 1891. Later, Talladega College and Selma University would award Young honorary degrees of Doctors of Letters. While earning his master's degree, Young became the principal of a black elementary school in Birmingham, Alabama.
On December 1, 1891, Young married Emma Mae Garette of Selma. They had two children, Nathan B. Young, Jr. and a daughter, Gareth. The first Mrs. Young died of fever in 1904 in Tallahassee, Florida. In 1908, Young married Margaret Buckley, originally from Charleston, South Carolina. They had three children: two sons, William and Frank DeForrest, and one daughter, Julia.
In 1892, Booker T. Washington employed Young to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Young stayed at Tuskegee for five years and served as the head of the academic department. Conflict developed between Young and Washington over Washington's efforts to vocationalize the academic courses and, in 1897, Young accepted the position of Director of Teacher Training at Georgia State Industrial College. There Young worked cooperatively under Richard R. Wright, but he remained opposed to the efforts of white Southerners to limit black education to agriculture and the trades.
In 1901, Young was called to serve as president of Florida A & M College. While there, Young tried to balance the agricultural and vocational education program with a liberal arts program. After World War I, however, the intolerance of white state officials to the teaching of liberal arts to black youth increased. As a result, Young was forced out in 1922.
During his battle in Florida, Young was asked to accept the presidency of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Lincoln University was the former Lincoln Institute, which had recently become a university, though in name only. Between 1923 and 1927, Young made a determined effort to establish Lincoln University as a first-class institution of higher learning. In a remarkably short time, he successfully campaigned to raise the academic standards at Lincoln and to get its high school and teacher training programs accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.
Unfortunately, for many years, the school had been embroiled in state political battles. With the state elections of 1924, the situation worsened, and by 1927, the politicians had forced Young out of the presidency. Between 1927 and 1928, Young served as Missouri Inspector of Negro Schools. After the heated election of 1928, where the future course of Lincoln University was made a campaign issue by the black press, Young was returned to the presidency. Politics, however, entered the picture again, and Young was forced out for a second time in 1931. Nearing 70 years of age, Young decided not to fight this time, and retired to Tampa, Florida, where he lived with his daughter until his death on July 19, 1933.
Young left a great legacy to higher education for African Americans. Two important historically black institutions of higher educaion continue to exist and grow as a result of Young's influence and leadership. His model for Florida A & M and Lincoln universities was a good one and continued to be followed for several decades. His courage helped push state politicians out of the schools' affairs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lincoln University History Professor Antonio F. Holland, Ph.D., is co-author with Lorenzo J. Greene and Gary Kremer of "Missouri's Black Heritage", revised edition, University of Missouri Press, 1993. Holland is currently writing a book based on the life and work Nathan B. Young.