Davidson College

Written By Jonathan Martin

In the 1930s, the leaders of the Concord and Bethel Presbyterian Churches sought to establish a school for potential male ministers in the mid-1830s. Robert Hall Morrison, a Charlotte native, proposed the original resolution for a new institution to be “a manual training school” in Davidson County, and he later became the school’s first president (Powell, p. 327). William Davidson, son of the General William Lee Davidson who died during the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, provided over 460 acres for the institution. Davidson College opened in 1837, and the college was named in honor of the slain patriot General William L. Davidson.

During Davidson’s early years, local congregations and enrolled students helped with the construction and development of its campus. Students were required to work at least three hours each day alongside church members who worked to haul debris, build fences, and clear the land at Davidson (N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program). By 1841, students were no longer required to work because Davidson had transitioned from a manual curriculum to a classical one.

As a fledgling college, Davidson struggled until the mid-1850s. However, Maxwell Chambers, a Salisbury farmer, left the college $250,000 in his will that was allocated to the school in 1856. According to historian William S. Powell, “the gift made Davidson the most heavily endowed institution south of Princeton” (p. 328). Due to the large endowment, Davidson continued to grow and it was only one of two North Carolina colleges that remained open during the Civil War.

After the Civil War, Davidson’s student body numbered in the mere twenties, but academic success persisted. Woodrow Wilson, future president of the United States, studied at the institution in 1873, and Henry Louis Smith, a future president of the college, collaborated with his students to produce some of the first X-ray pictures in America. In addition, William P. Mills secured a Rhodes scholarship in 1903 becoming the first Davidson student to secure the renowned endowment.

By the end of the 1920s, Davidson College had introduced several different language courses in its programs and it started to offer Bachelor of Science degrees. In addition, business and music courses were added to the school’s curricula while the Blue Sky Curriculum was offered beginning in the 1960s. In 1972, Davidson opened its campus to women, and in the 1980s new sports buildings and residence halls were erected across the college.

In 2023, Davidson College enrolled about 1900 students, offered 31 majors, and had a student-to-faculty ratio of nine to one. The institution prides itself on its Honor Code tradition as well as its notable alumni, who include: President Wilson, Dean Rusk (former U.S. Secretary of State), and North Carolina governors Robert B. Glenn, James E. Holshouser, and James G. Martin.