This week marks the 160th anniversary of one of the most devastating events in Samford University’s long history.
On the night of Oct. 15, 1854, the young college’s only building – which housed students, classrooms, laboratories, equipment, books – was destroyed by fire. All the young college’s property was lost, and one student died as a result of injuries sustained in the fire. Located at the time in Marion, Alabama, the college was not quite 13 years old and could have been devastated by the fire.
But, it was a story of heroism during the fire that has carried forward in the university’s history and folklore. Harry, the college janitor and a slave belonging to President Henry Talbird, was among the first to awaken after the fire was discovered. According to accounts of the tragic night, when told to escape while he could, Harry replied, “Not till I wake up the boys.”
He went door to door through the building on his “errand of mercy,” according to reports of the time. When he reached the last room on the upper floor, he was faced with flames where he could not reach the stairs. He jumped from the hall window and was fatally injured.
As a tribute to his heroism, the people of Marion held Harry's funeral at Siloam Baptist Church, and he was buried in the cemetery there. A marble obelisk was erected at the gravesite through contributions from officers and students of the college and the Alabama Baptist State Convention. All joined in the dedication of the monument “to the fidelity and heroism of Harry, the hero-slave.” Although their language echoes the pernicious myth of the "happy slave," there is little doubt of their sincerity in honoring Harry.
The spirit of Harry continues today on the Samford campus. A plaque on Centennial Walk commemorates his life and heroism. Students enjoy concerts, meals and other special events in Harry’s Coffeehouse in the Beeson University Center.