Local History Column: Zion College, Chattanooga's only African American College

School education pencil tile

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

Before 1947, African-Americans in Chattanooga seeking education after high school had to leave the city. The closest black colleges were in Rogersville, Knoxville and Morristown, Tenn. But in 1947, Dr. Lee Roberson of Highland Park Baptist Church, with other ministers, opened the Zion Institute.

Initially, Zion trained those preparing to be ministers and church workers. Classes included Bible, history, music, English, homiletics (the art of writing sermons), hermeneutics (knowledge of Bible interpretations), flannel art, Sunday school lessons and missions. Students attended its night classes at the New Monumental Baptist Church on East Eighth Street.

By December 1949, Zion, with seven enrolled in college and 10 in seminary, had completed its first half semester. The institute was chartered that year as a two-year junior college and a three-year theological seminary. In 1952, the college added several departments, including commerce. A year later, Horace Traylor became the college's first graduate.

The Chattanooga Times on Aug. 30, 1959, noted that Zion's new president, Dr. Horace Jerome Traylor, expressed hope for the college's future and its usefulness in "producing men and women of strong faith, right convictions and courage. Men and women with poise and vision, who will be living witnesses of the gospel in their various occupations."

The college was a nonsectarian liberal arts institution offering bachelor's of arts and bachelor's of science degrees with courses in English, history, secretarial science, business administration and Christian education. However, Zion had been unable to receive accreditation and had returned to junior college status in 1958.

The faculty and its students met in three buildings on Ninth Street and hoped to move to a new plant near Howard High School. Setbacks on the way included a 1962 fire that destroyed the main building. The community replaced the demolished library books, and a new building in the same area was secured.

Zion College changed its name to Chattanooga City College in 1964 and had 100 students registered on Dec. 12, 1965, when the dedication of the new building took place.

The private, African-American junior college offered courses for students wishing to transfer to a four-year school as well as college-level courses for those who wanted immediate employment after graduation.

Zion offered the associate arts degree and associate science degree in addition to a certificate in secretarial science. With approved accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, veterans were able to attend Chattanooga City College using the GI Bill.

In 1965, the college welcomed the fraternity Epsilon Theta Sigma. In August 1966, The Chattanooga Times related that Otis Boddy, the academic dean, saw the potential for City College to become a four-year center of learning.

Before the college could pursue that goal, its faculty received news of the private University of Chattanooga merging into the University of Tennessee system. Realizing that combination would affect the small Chattanooga City College, black leaders persuaded the state education board to agree to a merger of City College with the new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

In June 1969, City College graduated its last class of 24 members and on July 1 became part of the new university. The Chattanooga Times, on June 2, 1960, reported that graduation speaker Dr. John Codwell told the students that black Americans needed to "grasp the many opportunities available [and that is] best done through education."

One of the last honorees of Chattanooga City College was Wilma Saddler, the first person to graduate from its commerce department with a certificate of secretarial science. Saddler later joined the faculty, teaching typing, shorthand and assisting with the night school while she continued studies at the University of Chattanooga.

She later worked as secretary for Howard School for 12 years. At the time of her honor in 1969, she was operations secretary of the Educational Evaluation Center of Chattanooga Public Schools.

Without the opportunity presented by Zion College, Saddler and several other black students would have had to seek education outside Chattanooga.

Suzette Raney is a librarian and archivist at the Chattanooga Public Library. For information on Zion or other African-American institutions, visit the Library's Local History Department at the downtown branch or call 423-643-7725. For more, visit Chattahistorical assoc.org.