William Councill

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William Councill

William Hooper Councill (born July 12, 1849 at Councill Plantation in Fayetteville, North Carolina; died April 9, 1909 in Huntsville, Madison County) was an attorney and educator who founded Lincoln School in Huntsville and served as the first president of Huntsville Normal School (now Alabama A&M University). Councill was also an author and publisher of the Hunstville Herald.

Councill was born into slavery. His father escaped to Canada when he was five, but was unable to secure passage for his family. Three years later William, his mother, and one of his three brothers were brought to Alabama by slave traders and sold to Judge David Humphrey of Huntsville. He worked in the cotton field until 1863 when he escaped across Union lines near Chattanooga, Tennessee. After the Civil War ended, he attended a Quaker school for freed black children in Stevenson, Jackson County for three years, supplementing his lessons by teaching himself from books. In 1867 he began teaching while also working as a hotel porter. Two years later, at 22 years old, he opened the Lincoln School in Huntsville. He continued to study, taking night classes in chemistry, mathematics, law and Latin.

Councill served as an enrolling clerk for the Alabama House of Representatives from 1872 to 1874 and ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the legislature in the 1874 general election. At the Alabama delagate to the 1873 National Equal Rights convention he lobbied for Congress to enact Charles Sumner's Civil Rights Bill intact, saying that he, "wanted all the rights that the white man enjoyed, for justice hath no color."

He was offered the position of receiver-general of the land office for the northern district of Alabama, but declined the office. His political experiences inspired to continue reading law, though, and he was admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1883, but never practiced as an attorney.

Councill accepted his appointment as the first principal of the State Colored Normal School at Huntsville. The school, established to train teachers for segregated public schools, was granted a $1,000 state appropriation. It opened on May 1, 1875 in the basement of a church and grew rapidly in enrollment and prestige. In 1883 the state appropriation was doubled and the college added industrial programs to its teacher training curriculum. Funding remained a struggle for the institution and Councill found himself competing with Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington for support from philanthropists in Alabama and around the country. The school's library was constructed with support from the Carnegie Foundation in 1904.

Councill found time to publish and edit the Huntsville Herald newspaper. On February 13, 1891 the school was designated as a land grant college under the Morrill Act. In 1891 he ushered the college onto a new campus on land purchased from the Conley family at the site of the former Green Bottom Inn north of Huntsville. The town that grew up around the campus became known as "Normal" for the school.

Councill founded the St John African Methodist Episcopal Church at Normal in 1885. That same year he was accused of raping a 12-year-old student, but was acquitted at trial. In 1887 he sued a railroad for evicting him from a first-class passenger car. The action led to his dismissal as head of the Normal School, but he was reinstated in 1888 after winning a judgment from the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Councill was also known as a powerful orator and ambassador for African Americans laboring to advance in the American South. He modified his early appeal for integration by observing the opportunities afforded to African American professionals under segregated society. Before his death he traveled to Europe and met with Prime Minister William Gladstone in England and with King Leopold in Belgium.

Councill remained president of the school until his death in 1909. He is buried, alongside his wife, Mariah, on the campus of Alabama A&M University.

Birmingham's Councill Elementary School is named in his honor.

Publications

  • Councill, William H. (1898) The Lamp of Wisdom.
  • Councill, William H. (1901) Negro Development in the South.
  • Councill, William H. (1903) The Bright Side of the Southern Question.

References