Shaw University

Written By North Carolina History Project

From its beginning in 1865, Shaw University has been a forerunner in starting educational programs among historically black colleges and served as the birthplace of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.

According to historian Henry L. Swint, the Northern teacher came South on the heels of the Union soldier.  Approximately six months after the Civil War ended and under the direction of Henry Martin Tupper, a former Union soldier, Shaw University began as The Raleigh Institute; its sole purpose was to teach theology.  A year later women started attending the school. In 1870, its name changed to Shaw Collegiate Institute and in 1875 to Shaw University.  (The school was named for Elijah Shaw, a benefactor, and received other financial support from the American Home Baptist Mission.) The school started adding new programs as time went on.  By the early 1880s, the school added a medical school, and by the early 1890s, the charter law school class and pharmacy class had graduated from Shaw University.  

In many ways, Shaw University has been an institutional pioneer.  Among historically black colleges and universities, it was the first among them to be established, to enroll African American women, and to be devoted exclusively to college work.  It was also the birthplace of SNCC.

An alumna and former valedictorian (1927), Ella Baker started SNCC, as sociologist Aldon D. Morris writes, to “coordinate the local movements in which students were already immersed” in the Southern Leadership Conference.   The “Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Non-violent Resistance to Segregation” was announced, and Shaw University provided accommodations and the SCLC provided $800 for expenses.  On Easter weekend in 1960, students decided to remain independent form the various Civil Rights agencies—NAACP, SCLC, and CORE—and establish SNCC.

Many Shaw alumni have been instrumental in starting other North Carolina black colleges, including Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, and North Carolina Central University. In the fall of 2022, Shaw University had 924 students. The most popular majors at Shaw University include Accounting; Parks, Recreation, and Leisure Studies; and Criminal Justice.