June 9, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: Leslie S. Wright, 1958-1983

"... The new president, Leslie S. Wright, would help realize Davis' vision, lead the way to university status, and oversee the most significant cultural change since the college became coeducational..."

Leslie S. WrightHoward College president Harwell Goodwin Davis led the college through its second major relocation, then stepped down in 1958 after almost two decades of service. The Georgian-Colonial campus he envisioned would soon appear, but for the moment it was a sea of mud and a handful of buildings. The new president, Leslie S. Wright, would help realize Davis' vision, lead the way to university status, and oversee the most significant cultural change since the college became coeducational.

Wright, a Birmingham native, completed his education in Kentucky before returning to Alabama as a teacher and coach before WWII. After serving as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer in the South Pacific, Wright worked for the Federal government and eventually served as an assistant to U.S. Senator Lister Hill. At the time Wright was called to Howard, he had served the Baptist Foundation of Alabama for several years.

Under Wright's administration, Howard grew both physically and academically. The college acquired the legendary Cumberland School of Law in 1961. Internal reorganization and the addition of graduate and professional programs elevated Howard to university status in 1965. The world already had a Howard University, however, so the trustees chose to name the new university in honor of the family of one of their own, Frank Park Samford. Samford University would add more graduate and professional programs, but Howard College of Arts and Sciences would remain its academic core.

Wright's other notable achievements included the acquisition of the Ida V. Moffet School of Nursing in 1973 and the cultivation of a friendship with Ralph W. Beeson. The Beeson family's subsequent gifts to Samford allowed the university to grow in exciting new ways. But growth is sometimes painful, and Samford was not immune to the racial and generational conflict challenging the nation during the 1960s and 1970s.

As a private segregated institution, Samford University was to some degree insulated from the events that defined Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and early 1960s. But a growing core of Samford faculty and students opposed segregation, and by the late 1960s changing laws made racist policies untenable even for private universities.

Wright resisted integration, but Samford's whites-only policy threatened Federal student aid and institutional accreditation. Cumberland School of Law faced the greatest immediate jeopardy, so finally admitted Samford's first black student, Audrey Lattimore Gaston, in 1967. Once that door was opened at Cumberland Wright was unable to close it there or prevent the integration of the university as a whole.

Although the desegregation of Samford proceeded peacefully, Wright often battled faculty and students over other university policies and the extent of presidential powers. In spite of this internal strife, Wright still managed to serve Samford longer than any president before or since. He also served as University Chancellor from his retirement in 1983 until his death in 1997.

In his 25 years as president, Leslie S. Wright helped realize the decades-old vision of a "greater Howard." His successor, Thomas E. Corts, continued on the same course, nurturing an ever-expanding campus and academic program largely made possible by the gifts of the Beeson family.

More Info

The integration of Cumberland Law School is described in the book From Maverick to Mainstream: Cumberland School of Law, 1847-1997, by David Langum and Howard Walthall. Samford History major Paul Cunningham further described the process and placed it within the larger political and religious context in his 2004 research paper "Desegregating Samford: A Study of the Integration of a Baptist College in the 1960s."