December 2, 2021

Preserving Winsborough Hall at Stillman College: A Q&A with Dr. Cynthia Warrick

The HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative derived from a need to cultivate and uplift historic Black colleges and universities across the nation. This work is in tandem with the standard set by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to protect and restore places where significant Black history happened and highlight the key roles they have played in American society.

This year, eight HBCUs were awarded more than $650,000 in funding to develop cultural heritage stewardship plans for their campuses and historic sites. The sole goal of this initiative is to partner with HBCUs to empower and preserve the legacies of the campuses and ensure that the stories of their foundations are upheld to educate and inspire future generations of students to pay it forward. As part of this work, we conducted a Q&A with each grant recipient to learn about the history and work at each of these significant institutions.

Stillman College, located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was formed starting in 1875 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Originally known as the Tuscaloosa Institute, it was created as a ministerial training academy for “Negro men.” Under the direction of Rev. Dr. Charles Allen Stillman, who initiated the training academy concept, the institute grew with an annual enrollment of 15 students.

A woman standing next to a signage with a building marked as Winsborough Hall behind her.

photo by: Stillman College

Dr. Cynthia Warrick, president of Stillman College, in front of Winsborough Hall.

In 1895, following incorporation by the State of Alabama, it was renamed Stillman Institute in honor of its founder. A few years later in 1899, the campus became Stillman College.

Winsborough Hall (1922), the oldest remaining building in the Stillman Historic District, was built to provide an opportunity for Black women with the hopes of cultivating more women leaders. Dr. Cynthia Warrick, current president of Stillman College, recounts the story of this historic dormitory and speaks about how the HBCU Cultural Heritage Grant is protecting and preserving its story.

Why is this place important to preserve? Can you provide some background on the history of the site, including both cultural and architectural history?

Winsborough Hall is named after Ms. Hallie Paxson Winsborough, superintendent of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Presbyterian Church. Prior to 1916, the Women’s Auxiliary was unable to develop programs to support the Black women of the Church because of the inability to identify leaders among Black women. In August 1916, the Auxiliary held the first Conference for Negro Women at Stillman. These conferences were designed to facilitate discussions around interracial relationships within the Church and advance the Church’s successful efforts in this area. Women from Black churches were invited to the conference to receive instruction in bible study, Christian living, homemaking, sanitation, and community service.

By 1920, Presbyterian women from each state had raised $15,000 toward the construction of a female dormitory at Stillman. Construction began on the building in 1921 and the school’s first female students occupied the residence hall in 1922, making Stillman a coeducational institution. It served as a women’s dormitory from 1922 to 2011.

In June 1963, Vivian Malone Jones was one of the two students to attempt to integrate the University of Alabama. Winsborough Hall served as place of refuge for Malone as she waited to enter the University of Alabama. Malone and James Hood would eventually be escorted by 100 newly federalized National Guardsmen to register at the University of Alabama. Within her first year at the University, there were 3 bombings at the school.

Winsborough and the Stillman campus would continue to support civil rights efforts in Tuscaloosa through the 1960s.In 1964, Winsborough would become a place for weary students to be reinvigorated after protesting segregation in Tuscaloosa with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Interior of a bedroom with two beds and three young women sitting on the two twin beds. A fourth woman is standing in front of a dresser looking into a mirror.

photo by: Stillman College

Four young women inside one of the rooms at Winsborough Hall.

In her August 2000 Commencement Address, Malone Jones expressed that she could not have done what she did without Stillman College and Tuscaloosa’s West End, which provided a safe haven. Of her historic achievement, she once said, “Walking through the door that had been closed to me and others of my color was a step toward ending segregation in the south.”

What inspires you about this project?

The Winsborough Hall project inspires me because it is about Women making an impact through organizing, networking, support, and education. Hallie Paxson Winsborough worked diligently to elevate the status of Black women and raised funding from the Women’s Auxiliary of the Presbyterian Church to build the first female dormitory and thus first school for Black women supported by the Church.

This project preserves the history of Winsborough and the many women who resided in this historic structure. As the first female president of Stillman College, it makes me proud to advance a project to not only preserve the history of African American women in the early beginnings of the Presbyterian Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and desegregation, but also the numerous women leaders that Stillman College produced who lived in Winsborough Hall, the “honors dorm.”

Why do you believe there is a focus now on preserving historic legacies and buildings?

Historic preservation is very important because it provides the foundation for our understanding of how and why activities occurred, and the context and structure of truth. When we learn about our history, we develop confidence in knowing the challenges that were overcome for progress today. Historic buildings preserve this knowledge and truth.

How will your vision for a senior living center as the new purpose of Winsborough Hall impact the community?

This project will plan the historic restoration and rehabilitation of Winsborough Hall from a female dormitory to a residential facility to house active senior citizens. The Winsborough Hall Living & Learning Center aligns with our strategic plan and quality enhancement plan to facilitate a multi-generational campus. This historic structure will bring older generations to enjoy the safe cultural, educational, and social space that our students experience and be part of a thriving community for continuous learning.

Stillman is in West Tuscaloosa, which houses the larger Black community in Tuscaloosa. We will invite members from the community, especially the churches and faith-based communities to serve on the planning committees; and for oral histories and other programs to capture additional information about Winsborough Hall. We have collected the names and contact information of over 70 former Winsborough residents from 1970 to 2009, who are very interested in participating and supporting this project.

Historic exterior image of a stately building with columns flanking the entrance.

photo by: Stillman College

Historic photo of the exterior of Winsborough Hall.

Exterior view of a three story brick building with a set of entrance columns. Black lettering above the columns reads Winsborough Hall.

photo by: Michael A. Hubbard

Exterior of Winsborough Hall.

Is there any potential for student involvement in the preservation and adaptation of the historic structure?

Stillman students will be involved on the planning committee. The Chair of the History Department will also ensure that students can develop Senior Thesis projects from the oral histories and other information that we collect about Winsborough and its former residents. When this project is completed, and we have a resident population of senior citizens on the campus, they will be able to attend classes, social and cultural events, and eat and recreate with the students.

We will plan for our Biomedical science majors to develop projects on healthy aging; Health & Human Performance students will work with the seniors on physical activity, diet, and exercise; and our Psychology students will develop programs in gerontology and the psychological benefits of living on an HBCU campus. We hope that the Winsborough Living & Learning Center will serve as a model for other HBCU campuses, to bridge the generations and enhance student and community participation and education.

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Monique Robinson is a graduate student in architecture and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. In the Summer of 2021 she was an intern with the National Trust's HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative.

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