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Burleson College:
Greenville's Scholastic Jewel

Greenville, Texas

by Joshua V. Chanin

Since I recently talked about the evolution of higher education in the United States in my History 1302 class at Texas A&M University Commerce, I have found an interest in discovering Texas colleges that once were successful, however, were forced to abandon their roots and close their doors due to unforeseen circumstances. This article sheds due light on Burleson College, a renowned higher-learning academy in East Texas during the early decades of the twentieth century that bathed in glory days until its suffering from financial burdens.

Following the successful inception of William Leonidas Mayo's college-East Texas Normal College-in Commerce in September 1894, neighboring towns desired to establish higher learning institutions for their communities. Greenville-located approximately sixteen miles southwest of Commerce-followed their neighbor's program and discussed the details of a roughly-sketched idea of a male and female college at a city council meeting on October 1, 1894. Burleson College, named in honor of Dr. Rufus Columbus Burleson, the president of Baylor University in Waco, opened its doors in January 1895. The four-year college was funded by the Hunt County Baptist Association. The first classes were held in downtown Greenville as the Administration Building would not be open until that fall. Reverend S.J. Anderson, the vocal pastor of the First Baptist Church in Greenville, was selected by the Board of Trustees as the institution's first president on May 27, 1895. The pastor began his tenure a couple of days prior to the college's first graduation ceremony where eight students from the recently-closed Greenville College completed their credits at the new institution and walked the stage.

Burleson College's three-story brick administration building was completed in October 1895. The structure housed classrooms, faculty offices, a dining room, and a three-hundred seat auditorium. According to an 1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, the building was equipped with heating stoves and electric lighting. Like many colleges in Texas at the turn of the twentieth century, the central hub of the main campus was an outlier, situated on a flat and desolate five-acre plot of land that was one mile west from the Greenville Courthouse and apart from the daily bustle of the city. A lumber-clad dormitory for male students was built by a group of employees from the Dormitory Stock Company in the spring of 1896.

Greenville TX - Burleson College Administration Building
Burleson College Administration Building
Courtesy Northeast Texas History and Genealogy Center
at the W. Walworth Harrison Public Library in Greenville, Texas

Female students would have the opportunity to live on campus following 1898; Burleson's forty-room dormitory for girls featured state-of-the-art bedrooms and students' furniture was upgraded in the spring of 1913 when the community generously donated $50,000 to refurbish the residence hall. As noted on the 1913 college catalogue, female students living in the dormitory paid $3 per week for room and board after paying $60 for the first five weeks of the term; the housing fee did not include laundry. Following a fire on April 8, 1925, which destroyed the female dormitory, a replacement building was erected in August 1926. By 1914, as shown on a Sanborn map that year, Burleson College had been flanked by two major paved roads, Lee Street and College Boulevard, and subsequently attracted a gathering of boarding houses and family residences on the west side of Greenville.

The college's curriculum employed a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, similar to the academic schemes used at Harvard and Yale Universities, effectively placing heavy emphasis on the humanities, sciences, arts and expression. Moreover, the college instituted business courses in the early 1920s. According to Greenville newspapers in the 1910s, Burleson College's robust curriculum rivaled those at Austin College and Kidd-Key College, both two prestigious schools in Sherman. Like Baylor University, the aim of Burleson College was to offer male and female students in Northeast Texas the best scholastic opportunities and Christian means for mental development and moral growth; Burleson's teachers pledged to educate both the heart and mind.

Although the college had originally opened with a four-year degree plan, the school's trustees and Baptist Educational Commission decreed Burleson College as a two-year junior college in June 1907. Tuition was fairly inexpensive for a two-year college in Texas during the early decades of the twentieth century, amounting to $8 per month plus $4 per month for incidentals and books. Notable faculty members on campus included Dr. Jesse Guy Smith, professor of science and United States history; Mr. John Edwin Abney, professor of mathematics; Ms. Nellie Reese, instructor of art; Mr. John S. Humphreys, professor of Latin; and Mr. William Irwin Gibson, chairman of the faculty and professor of classical languages and Bible Studies.

Burleson College's faculty were close to their students and mentored them to various successes. Mr. Gibson (who would later become the college's president during the 1920s) and his wife Martha Low, an instructor of music at the college, frequently invited students to their house after class for dinner and conversations spoken entirely in Greek and Hebrew. Mr. Gibson would also often speak to large groups of students about his experiences fighting with the Second Regiment of the CSA Mississippi Infantry during the Civil War. The couple's two-story residence at 4229 Lee Street was considered a place of warmth and cheerful gathering, and occasionally used as a 'room and board.' Mr. Edward L. Compere, a distinguished graduate of Baylor University's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, became the college's president and professor of English in 1911, and was highly favorable among many at the school and in the community; his youthful, energetic spirit in the classroom evoked students to take a sincere interest in their studies (even in the subjects that could drift a student to deep sleep).

All students at Burleson College attained the grades to partake in literary societies. The Herculean Literary Society was the oldest of the four societies, and actively encouraged male students to vocally express and immerse themselves in the art of the English language. Their meetings consisted of friendly debates, public speeches, and mock arguments. The Pierians was a female literary society that emphasized one's appreciation in art and natural beauty. These two organizations, along with the Platonians and Eunomians held their meetings in Society Hall, a gathering venue located in the Administration Building. Students also participated in several extra-curricular activities on campus including the acapella choir, Burleson Dancers, and athletics.

Sporting blue and white jerseys and uniforms, Burleson College athletes were labeled the 'Bruins' by the Dallas Morning News in 1907. Under the guidance of history professor and athletic coach R.A. Atkins, the football team played fairly well in 1915 against East Texas Normal College, Texas Military Academy, and local rival Wesley College, and accrued a season record 3-3-1. It is important to note that the Burleson athletes on the football field were smaller in statue than their foes; the players averaged 152 pounds per man in 1915, much less than the average weight for football athletes in Texas colleges at 176 pounds. Coach Atkins also piloted the college's baseball team to several victories over Greenville Central High School between 1907 and 1916. Several of the young men on campus participated on the tennis team. Moreover, the institution had a women's basketball team, which outperformed their foes during the 1915 competitions.

Students at Burleson College also embarked on various service projects in the community each year and willingly joined the on-campus organizations, the Student Christian Association and Prohibition League, in accordance with the overarching Baptist faith. Several pupils who had an eye for creativity established a yearbook club in 1910, where they produced the school's annual volume Cotton Boll. These student-artists, led by editor-in-chief Herbert Moulton Harrison, also created six inches-by-eight inches quarterly scrapbooks for their peers featuring black-and-white photographs, class essays, and community news.

According to yearbooks and college records, individuals who outperformed their peers in the classroom and on the athletic fields, and reaped the successes that followed included Loura Inez Robinson, a Greenville native who won the college's reading and writing contests in 1909 and 1910; Edna Germany, the 1910 class valedictorian and co-recipient of the Baylor Scholarship; Will Walworth, the winner of the 1910 mid-winter debate; Bruce Shoemaker, co-captain of the football team and president of the Herculean Society in 1915; J.H. Davis, a baseball player and elected by his colleagues as vice president of the 1915 senior class; and Chellie McLendon, a native of Fate who was the captain of the women's basketball team and recipient of the 1914 Dormitory Medal. Exemplary athletes at Burleson College included Ralph Ownby, captain of the 1916 baseball team and one of the best pitchers in the region; Bruce Shoemaker, a 1915 co-captain of the football team who had the most rushing yards of any college footballer in North Texas in 1914; and Annie Elizabeth Hope, the most valuable player on the women's basketball team in 1909. Greenville was steeped in talent, and until its closing, Burleson College had generated many outstanding scholars, athletes, and leaders.

Burleson College flourished in the 1920s with enrollment reaching a peak at 325 students in 1929, along with 19 faculty members. However, the dark grip of the Great Depression hit Texas at the start of 1930 and the administration found that they were in debt, overburdened with many financial problems. Additionally, Burleson College had begun to have stiff competition from state-supported schools that fared better during the 1930s, including East Texas State Teacher's College. Due to these difficulties, the Burleson College's administration were forced to shut their school's doors on December 5, 1930. The buildings were later razed, and the campus grounds were turned into a park for the citizens of Greenville.

Today, the space that was once Burleson College is occupied by the Reecy Davis Recreation Center. Wesley College, Greenville's other large institution of higher learning, ceased to exist after 1938 following its own financial problems. Although Burleson College was one of several colleges in Texas to have a tragic end, its impact on students and the community for thirty-five years was deeply profound. Memory of the college was preserved for a while by graduates; ex-students hosted two reunions in 1952 and 1955 at the Washington Street Baptist Church in Greenville. Archival photographs show large gatherings of elderly men and women embracing, conversing, and taking a pleasant trip down memory lane. Unfortunately, those memories of Burleson College are now buried deep in the archives and aside from public access, and so, I hope that this article illuminated the subject on hand and brought the conversations back to the audience.

Rufus Burleson
Rufus Burleson
Northeast Texas History and Genealogy Center
at the W. Walworth Harrison Public Library
in Greenville, Texas

© Joshua V. Chanin November 6, 2019 Guest Column
Harrison, W. Walworth. History of Greenville and Hunt County, Texas (Waco: Texian, 1976).

Hesler, Samuel B. "Burleson College," The Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 25, 2019, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/kbb20.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Greenville, 1898-1914, Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin.

Various college records, Cotton Boll yearbooks, student scrapbooks, and photographs from the Northeast Texas History and Genealogy Center at W. Walworth Harrison Library, 1895-1930, James G. Gee Library, Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Author Biography:
Joshua V. Chanin is adjunct instructor of history and community director of Whitley Hall at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He received his M.A. in history from the University of Texas at Arlington, and specializes in the history of women and education in Texas.

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