The story of a forgotten America.

Knoxville College

Knoxville College is a formerly abandoned liberal arts college in Knoxville, Tennessee. It reopened on a limited basis in 2018.


The Reverend J.G. McKee, under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Mission of the United Presbyterian Church, founded the McKee School in Nashville in 1862. 12 It was the first organized school for blacks in the state. The church soon established similar missionary schools to promote religious, moral, and educational leadership 13 in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. 12

In Knoxville, the Rev. R.J. Creswell formed a mission school under the church in 1864 and initially met at the First Baptist Church on Gay Street before relocating to East Knoxville in 1866. 1

In 1872, the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church opted to discontinue support of the schools to establish a college where blacks could study ministry and teaching. 12 The church selected Knoxville as the site of the college in 1874. Black citizens had expressed interest in the school, and the city was strategically located between Nashville and Atlanta, other centers of black education. It also faced less competition from other denominations than if it had remained in Nashville. 1

The first building of the new Knoxville College, McKee Hall, was opened in December 1876. 1 It was located on a former Confederate battery on a hilltop site west of the city 2 and named after the Reverend O.S. McKee. Former Governor William G. Brownlow and gubernatorial candidate William F. Yardley spoke at the opening ceremony. 3

Dr. John Scouller McCulloch, who had been a chaplain in the Civil War, became the first president of Knoxville College. 13 The school featured a Normal School, full college courses in the classics, science, and theology, and classes in agriculture, industrial arts, and medicine.

As few blacks qualified to go to college, the institution formed a grade and high school to prepare students for college courses. 13 The elementary school was discontinued in 1927, followed by the high school in 1931.

Between 1890 and 1909, the college served as the Industrial Department for black students at the University of Tennessee to secure funds for the scientific and industrial education of blacks, authorized by the Second Morrill Act. 4 12 The arrangement lasted until the state constructed the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial College in Nashville. 13

The College of Arts & Sciences was added in 1914, and between 1920 and 1950, the Normal School had the distinction of being the leading supplier of teachers to black schools in the eastern part of the state. 12 Gradually, other areas of general and specialized training were discontinued, and by 1931, Knoxville College had become a liberal arts institution. 13

Knoxville College’s charter was amended in 1954 to allow for the admission of white students, although the children of white faculty members previously attended the college. 12 In 1957, the institution became one of the first predominately black institutions to be admitted into the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). 4 12 13

In 1979, the United Presbyterian Church deeded the title of the college property to the Board of Trustees. 12


After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, blacks were able to attend previously all-white, state-supported colleges and universities. Knoxville College found it more challenging to compete for students that were attending larger institutions supported with state funding and larger endowments. 15 16 It also became difficult to retain faculty because of lower salaries.

SACS placed the college on probation in 1982 because of severe revenue shortfalls leading to SACS revoking the college’s accreditation in December 1984. 15 The action rendered the school and its 560 students ineligible for federal aid.

By 1987, Knoxville College had just 300 students, but a turn-around plan led to the accreditation being regained and the retirement of most of the debts. 17 Enrollment had jumped to 1,250 students. 16

In 1989, Knoxville College acquired the campus of the former Morristown College in Morristown to serve as a lower division program campus for freshmen students. 13 Morristown College was founded as a grammar school in 1881 by the Reverend Judson S. Hill, a Methodist minister from the New Jersey Conference, and grew into an accredited two-year college. 18

Owing to poor finances, Knoxville College closed Morristown College, which had just 65 students, in December 1995. 18

SACS once again placed Knoxville College on probation in 1995 because of poor leadership and management, $4 million in debt, and falling enrollment, which stood at just 315 students. 16 SACS revoked the school’s accreditation in December 1996.

Starting for the 1997 school year, Knoxville College instituted a work college concept patterned after Berea College in Kentucky. 16 For their annual $5,000 tuition, room, and board fees, students pay $2,300 per year upfront and work with 37 local companies to pay the remainder of it while the school raised money to cover the rest.

To make matters worse, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted an emergency clean-up of toxic chemicals that the college had improperly stored in laboratories in the shuttered A.K. Stewart Science Hall in June 2014. 7

But in April 2015, the school announced that it would suspend classes after the spring semester had concluded as it lost its state accreditation 21 and as enrollment had declined to just 11 students. 19 20 The college was struggling to pay $4.5 million in loans from 2003. 9 The college later reversed its earlier stance and announced that classes would resume for the fall 2016 term. 8

In September 2016, the city demanded that Knoxville College make repairs to fourteen of its campus buildings within 90 days or face condemnation. 10 They were becoming a source of ire for the fire department as they had to respond to numerous arsons on campus. 11 Crews subsequently boarded up the buildings.

The school was forced to vacate its last two occupied buildings in February 2017 21 because they did not meet building codes. 20 The Alumni Library had cracks in exterior load-bearing walls and McMillan Chapel had a leaking roof and poor electrical and plumbing systems. 21

In April, Mayor Rogero announced the idea for a combined $40 million public safety center during the year’s State of the City Address, which would be located on the campus of Knoxville College. 20 The proposal would also include housing and recreational space. The college, however, could not negotiate with Financial Capital Resources to alleviate $6 million in debt.

Knoxville College began offering online classes on September 4, 2018, after the Tennessee Higher Education Commission gave the approval to start enrolling students again in May. 21 Administrative offices were located in an annex adjacent to McMillan Chapel. The college has plans for the renovation of two buildings and the construction of a new structure, and grants and private funding are being sought. 21 It includes $5 million for the renovation of the Alumni Library, $12 million for the renovation of McKee Hall, and $15 million for the construction of the James X Reese Leadership Pavilion.


Most of the early buildings were constructed with bricks produced by students at the campus brickyard. 12 The college also owned timberland donated to the school by a former student, which was used for its lumber needs.

A.K. Stewart Science Hall

A.K. Stewart Science Hall was constructed in 1957 and featured classrooms, an amphitheater, laboratories, research, and offices. 14

Alumni Library

The Alumni Library was constructed in 1966. 11

Colston Center for Performing Arts

Colston Hall

Colston Hall was constructed in 1959 for women and featured parlors, kitchenettes, laundry facilities, a beauty parlor, and sickbay. 14

Davis Hall

Elnathan Hall

Elnathan Hall was erected in 1898 after a fire destroyed the original structure, and is named in honor of the school’s benefactors. 11 The building was altered in 1905 and 1971. It was used over time as a women’s dorm, administrative offices, and classrooms.

Giffen Alumni Memorial Building

Giffen Memorial Gymnasium was built in 1929.

McGranahan Hall

McGranahan Hall was constructed in 1959 for men and featured parlors, kitchenettes, laundry facilities, and sickbay. 14

McKee Hall

McKee Hall was constructed in 1876, rebuilt in 1895 following a fire, and altered in 1954. 11 The building is named for the Rev. O.S. McKee, who had established the first school for blacks in Nashville in 1862. McKee Hall was home to the Music Department, major administrative offices, and classrooms.

McMillan Chapel

McMillan Chapel was designed by Knoxville College alumnus William Thomas Jones and constructed in 1913. 11

President’s Residence

The President’s Residence was constructed of wood between 1886-89 and rebuilt with brick made by students on campus in 1905. 11

Robert H. Harvey College Center

The Robert H. Harvey College Center was built in 1965.

Wallace Hall

Wallace Hall was built in 1890 as a male orphanage and is named for Eliza B. Wallace, the school’s principal of female students between 1877 and 1897. 11 The structure was altered in the 1920s and later housed the Domestic Science Department, the Literary Society, teachers’ offices, and the Basic Skills Learning Center.

Young Memorial Fine Arts Building

Young Memorial Fine Arts Building was constructed in 1952 and included classrooms for music and art programs. 14




  1. Fleming, Cynthia. Knoxville College: A History and Some Recollections of the First Fifty Years. Vol. 58-59, East Tennessee Historical Society Publications, 1987. pp. 89-111.
  2. Seymour, Digby Gordon. Divided Loyalties: Fort Sanders and the Civil War in East Tennessee. University of Tennessee Press, 1963. p. 108.
  3. Deaderick, Lucile, editor. Heart of the Valley: A History of Knoxville. East Tennessee Historical Society, 1976. p. 41.
  4. Clark, Lois, and Lowell Giffen. “Knoxville College.” An Encyclopedia of East Tennessee, 1981, pp. 274–275.
  5. Booker, Robert. “White students attended Knoxville College in early days.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 27 Dec. 2016.
  6. Stuart, Reginald. “Knoxville College Still in the Dark But Seeing Light.” Diverse, 28 Apr. 2009.
  7. “Federal Agencies Begin Cleaning Up Hazardous Materials at Knoxville College Lab Building.” WATE, 9 Jun. 2014.
  8. “Knoxville College Suspends Classes Until Fall 2016.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 5 May 2015.
  9. Boehnke, Megan. “Knoxville College to Suspend Fall Classes.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 13 Apr. 2015.
  10. Boehnke, Megan. “Knoxville College has 90 days to make building repairs.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 16 Sept. 2016.
  11. Habegger, Becca. “KFD: Fire shows Knoxville College campus buildings pose threat.” WBIR, 30 Sept. 2016.
  12. Casteel, Britt A. Tennessee Historical Commission. Knoxville College Historic District. Dec. 1979.
  13. “History of Knoxville College.” Knoxville College Fact Book 1993-94, Knoxville College, 1994, p. 7.
  14. “Knoxville College Day Saturday.” Knoxville News-Sentinel, 30 Oct. 1959, p. 17.
  15. “College loses accreditation.” Knoxville News-Sentinel, 12 Dec. 1984, p. 5.
  16. Seymour Jr., Add. “Other schools show way for Morris Brown.” Atlanta Constitution, 15 Dec. 2002, p. D3.
  17. “Knoxville College enrollment high; reforms cited.” Tennessean [Nashville], 25 Aug. 1988, p. 4-B.
  18. “Campus to close in Morristown.” Johnson City Press, 26 Oct. 1995, p. 3.
  19. “College to halt classes.” Leaf-Chronicle [Clarksville], 15 Apr. 2015, p. A3.
  20. Whetstone, Tyler. “City looks for new Safety Center location after removing Knoxville College from deal.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 16 Aug. 2018.
  21. Whetstone, Tyler. “Knoxville College takes ‘first step’ in grant process that could help restore campus.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 12 Oct. 2018.


Add Yours →

It is such a honor to know about this college, I found my ancestor Young D. Bryant as a boarder who attended this college thank you so much lets save and educate more students.

I am disappointed and disheartened to see the devastation of such a beautiful campus, however, not surprise when greed and corruption exist. Prior student who saw nepotism, so I am not astonished that karma finally reared his painful head.

It’s really sad to see schools like Knoxville College get destroyed. My mother graduated from that school and I saw the campus when we went to Tennessee. Hope and pray that one day it’ll be reopen.

Such a beautiful campus. I was so disheartened to see the campus in such disrepair. There is a rich history here. Founded in 1875, just ten year after Emancipation, newly freed men and women walked these hallowed grounds. It is my hope and prayer to one day see this institution opened, and once again educating young black men and women from across this country.

Let it die or turn it into a Black city Park and library..jesus is coming and it would be a waste of mony and volunteers life time lives wasted..$$$$$$$$$$️ ‍☠️

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