Harbison Agricultural College Photograph Collection
South Caroliniana Library, South Caroliniana Library
Harbison Agricultural College began in 1885 when the Rev. Emory W. Williams of Washington, D.C. founded a school to educate young African Americans in Abbeville, S.C. It was named Ferguson Academy in honor of one of its benefactors, Rev. James H. Ferguson of the Presbyterian Church in Hanover, N.J. The Academy drew the attention of the Board of Missions For Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, an organization whose purpose was to “equip and maintain training schools and to train leaders most efficiently for the Negro community.” The Board assumed the debt and acquired legal title to the Academy in 1891 after one of the buildings burned before it could be completed. Rev. Williams left his position as president of the Academy in 1893, and in his place, the Board appointed Rev. Thomas A. Amos. When the school building was deemed unsafe in 1899, Samuel Harbison of Pennsylvania and a Board member, donated 20 acres of land outside of town. The school relocated to the expanded 87 acres in 1901 and was renamed Harbison College in his honor. Among the donors to the new school were Henry Phipps of Abbeville who donated money for a boys dormitory, the Women’s Missionary Societies of New Jersey who furnished the dormitory, and Mrs. Ira Condit who donated 500 books for the library. Mr. Harbison continued his financial support by purchasing an additional 200 acres of land for the college in 1903 and financed the building of Harbison Hall which would serve as the chapel and classroom building.
President Amos’ tenure at the school was difficult. Racial tension among African Americans and whites in Abbeville, as well as some rivalry with the Williams-Ferguson Academy which continued in Abbeville under the leadership of Rev. Williams, eventually caused Amos to resign in 1906. Rev. Calvin M. Young, a native of Due West, S.C. and then Pastor of Herman Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, S.C., replaced Amos as President. Young closed the school briefly to assess the situation. In January 1907 the second of a series of fires struck the school, destroying the women’s dormitory (Ferguson Hall), one of four campus buildings. The school reopened with much smaller enrollment in February 1907.
On March 17, 1910 the third fire struck the school, when Harbison Hall was doused in kerosene and set ablaze. Three students were killed and another four or five were injured. In view of the uncertain and unhappy situation in Abbeville, the Board decided to relocate the school and settled on Irmo, S.C. for its new location. Mr. Harbison advanced $10,000 for the purchase of 445 acres of land. Several changes were affected by this move. First, the school went from being a co-educational institution to an all male school. Second, the name of the school was changed to Harbison Agricultural College, indicating the emphasis of the curriculum. In addition to agriculture, areas of instruction included literary, religion, and music.
Between 1913 and 1929 the College expanded through land purchases and donations. The school also purchased a church building once belonging to the Negro Baptists of Irmo and founded the Irmo Presbyterian Church. One of the other missions of the College was to promote the building of a Presbyterian Community. This was done through the “Farm Home Community” project. Parcels of land were sold off in small tracts of 25 acres or single acres for homes. In addition, the presence of the Irmo Parochial School, also led by the Presbyterian Mission attracted Presbyterians to the area. The college also owned the Harbison Farm where students could work to finance their education.
In 1929, the school changed its name to Harbison Agricultural and Industrial Institute. Unfortunately, the lack of equipment made it difficult for the school to offer full trade courses. Many students, however, were seeking curriculum which would allow for continuing higher education and the enrollment at the school began to decline.
Rev. Young resigned in 1929. He was replaced by Rev. James L. Hollowell, who died unexpectedly in October of that year. Rev. Young died shortly after Rev. Hollowell. Dean R. W. Boulware replaced Hollowell as interim president. In 1930, Rev. John G. Porter was appointed President by the Board. Due to the decreasing enrollment, Harbison Agricultural and Industrial Institute became a co-educational institution once again in 1933. The Irmo Parochial School, also maintained by the Board and residing on the HAII campus, was merged with the college.
On March 18, 1941 fire destroyed the main building of the college. The school closed during the 1941-1942 school year for rebuilding. When the school reopened in September 1943, it was for boarding students only. Rev. Porter as replaced by Dr. T. B. Jones as President. His wife, Vivian Young Jones, was the daughter of Rev. Calvin M. Young. Once again, primarily through donations and sales of land, the school began to expand. A new administration building was erected in 1944 and a new church in 1949.
In 1946 the school changed its name for the last time to Harbison Junior College. In 1952, the new church burned under unknown circumstances. In 1953 the Women’s dormitory building also burned. Once again the college had to rebuild. However, the declining enrollment, lack of accreditation and the lack of funds to make the necessary improvements to the college eventually led the Board to decide to close the institution in 1958. Students from the school transferred to other institutions, primarily the Boggs Academy in Keysville, Ga. and Barber Scotia College in Concord, N.C.
The buildings of the former College were leased for a time by the South Carolina Department of Corrections. In 1970, the Board of the National Missions of the Presbyterian Church decided to use the land for socially relevant purposes. To that end, 19.5 acres of land and the remaining college buildings were donated to Midlands Technical College – Harbison Center in 1978.