The Dead College is a private, four-year, liberal arts institution founded in 1875 as part of a missionary effort to educate freed slaves. The 39-acre campus includes 17 buildings that are scattered along a hill. It was previously the site of a Confederate battery during the Civil War. Along with administration and classroom buildings, the campus includes a performing arts center, a gymnasium, a library, a student center, and a chapel.
The first building was completed in 1876 and the campus was designated as a college the following year. Students were responsible for constructing most of the buildings on campus. Most of the bricks for these buildings were made by students at the campus brickyard. By 1904, students manufactured and either used or sold one million bricks. In 1913, a former student designed and built the chapel. The college used lumber donated from land owned by a former student as well.
A former Civil War chaplain was selected as the first college president. The school offered teacher training and full college courses in classics, science, and theology. Classes in agriculture, industrial arts, and medicine were also available.
The college had many white students until 1901, when the state passed a law forcibly segregating all schools. Since there were so few blacks in the early days that prepared for higher education; the college initially offered classes from 1st grade through college level. The elementary department was discontinued after the 1926-27 school year. The high school, or academy, was dropped in 1931.
Throughout the summer of 1960, students engaged in a number of sit-ins to protest segregation at lunch counters downtown. They eventually convinced most businesses to end the practice. The school’s charter was amended again in 1962 to allow white students.
Beginning in the 1970s, the college began to struggle financially along with a gradual decline in enrollment. In 1997, the school lost accreditation, enrollment dropped tremendously, and the financial situation became dire. The fall in enrollment caused most of the athletic programs to also be dropped. The only student activities left were a dance team, choir, debate team, and trivia team.
As the enrollment plummeted, the school’s debt skyrocketed and most degree programs were discontinued. Faculty members were not being paid and the campus buildings were left shuttered and abandoned due to unpaid bills.
The school struggled into the 2000s, although it remained open with an enrollment of 11 students. The Board of Trustees fired the school’s president in August 2005. Under new leadership, the school and alumni hoped to breathe new life into the dying campus. An aggressive fundraising campaign ensued and the school hired an interim president. Unfortunately, the interim president could not turn the failing school around. He left shortly after being hired.
In 2013, a piece of old laboratory equipment set off radiation detectors at a scrap metal yard. It was discovered that the item, a gas chromatograph, contained a small radioactive source.
Officials were notified and the equipment was traced back to the abandoned college and science center. The staff had simply locked the doors and forgot about the hazardous chemicals.
An ‘initial evaluation’ was done by the state who discovered thousands of hazardous and flammable chemicals. The state then notified the United States Environmental Protection Agency on an emergency basis.
Emergency response members from the EPA investigated the science building in June 2014. They found numerous leaking containers of chemicals. The science center tested positive for high levels of mercury throughout the building and in many of the leftover lab specimens.
Officials could never identify the source of the mercury contamination. Campus leaders were worried that vagrants were breaking in and removing items. The buildings had sat idle for 5 years before authorities were alerted to the possible hazard. Numerous attempts to seal up the building were unsuccessful.
The college was already struggling to pay back a $4.5 million loan taken out in 2003. The amount owed to the federal government for the clean up of the improperly stored chemicals in the science center was estimated at $425,000.
In April 2015, the school leaders announced it would suspend classes for the Fall 2015 term in hopes of reorganizing. However, the college never reopened and remains indefinitely closed.
In May 2016, the Department of Environment and Conservation recommended the college become a state Superfund site, due to the ongoing contamination issues with the science building.
The city threatened the school with condemnation in September 2016 if they did not make repairs on 14 of the buildings. The local fire department stated they had responded to almost thirty fires at the campus since the buildings closed in 1997.