February 3, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: A. D. Smith, 1896-1897

"... In addition to his service as a mathematics professor and business agent, he was a famous disciplinarian who had commanded the cadet corps under the watch of President J. T. Murfee. The latter experience served Smith well as he took up the challenge to save Howard, make it self-sustaining and free it of crippling debt..."

A. D. Smith, former Samford presidentAs a professor of mathematics and longtime business officer of Howard College, Albert Durant Smith must have been acutely aware of just how dire the college's circumstances were when he became president in the summer of 1896. The school's finances had driven away the previous two presidents and the end of the college seemed to be in sight. Howard's trustees appointed Smith "chairman of the faculty and manager of the college" less than two weeks before the college's property was to be foreclosed upon and publicly auctioned by the owners of its mortgage.

Smith, a native of Georgia, had served Howard College in many capacities since arriving at the Marion campus in 1881. In addition to his service as a mathematics professor and business agent, he was a famous disciplinarian who had commanded the cadet corps under the watch of President J. T. Murfee. The latter experience served Smith well as he took up the challenge to save Howard, make it self-sustaining and free it of crippling debt.

First and most importantly, Smith persuaded his friend, Birmingham banker Burghard Steiner, to personally guarantee payment of a significant part of Howard's debt if the college's creditors would agree to extend payment deadlines. The creditors agreed to postpone foreclosure, but Howard was left with the old problem of how to raise the funds to pay its debts. The college turned again to Alabama's Baptists.

At the request of Howard's trustees, three Baptist Birmingham pastors, B. D. Gray, P. T. Hale and W. A. Hobson took months-long leaves of absence from their churches to raise the money needed to save Howard. The $16,000 they raised--half-cash, half-pledge--was sufficient to make up missed payments and prevent foreclosure.

As the pastors undertook their work, Howard resolved a land dispute that had haunted the college since it arrived in East Lake. The East Lake Land Company finally agreed to donate the lots adjacent to the campus that the trustees had understood to be part of the incentive for relocating the college.

As the campus grew, Smith continued and enlarged the improvement projects begun by his predecessor, A. W. McGaha, adding new sidewalks and renovating buildings. The college still lacked necessary facilities, however. Citing the lack of appropriate facilities for women, Smith discontinued the experiment in coeducation that had given Howard its first female graduate, Annie Judge, in 1896. Of the other women enrolled at the college, only one somehow continued her studies after the announced end of the experiment. Eugenia Weatherly graduated in 1898 with the first full, four-year Howard degree awarded to a woman. She would be the last female graduate for almost two decades.

The temporary end of coeducation corresponded with Smith's application of an almost military discipline to the daily life of the college. This included the creation of a student "officer of the day" and the strict regulation of time and tasks. Significantly, the students were allowed to visit nearby Birmingham for only four hours each Saturday morning. One of the great selling points of the college, it seems, was that it was removed from the notorious "demoralizing agencies" of the young city. According to one observer, "every boy goes from chapel directly to his work. There is nothing but business through the whole day. Everything is done in systematic order."

Smith's administration sounds harsh to modern ears, but it seems to have inspired confidence and investment. A Howard College Day collection in the state's Baptist Churches in early 1897 further reduced the college's debt and gave hope that Howard could soon be debt-free.

By the end of the spring session, in only a year of service as president, A. D. Smith had led Howard toward a stability it had not enjoyed for over a decade. But, like his immediate predecessors, he'd had his fill of the experience and resigned the presidency in favor of a business career. For the fourth time in a decade, Howard sought new leadership.

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