Southern Union State Community College celebrating 100 years of service
By Katie Jackson
When 51 young men and women arrived in Wadley, Ala., on Sept. 12, 1923, to start classes at a brand-new Bible college, they found a single partially constructed building on a red clay hill. But they also found a five-member faculty and a town full of local citizens all ready and willing to create a learning community that would last for a century.
Those students represented the first class of Bethlehem College, a private Bible school chartered on June 2, 1922, by the Southern Convention of Christian Churches and charged with the mission of providing two years of affordable coeducational college training to the residents of Randolph and surrounding counties.
Today, that little school is known as Southern Union State Community College and though it is greatly changed — it now encompasses three campuses and a faculty of more than 200 full-time educators serving more than 4,000 students — its commitment to community education remains the same.
The story of Southern Union’s century of service began after town leaders in Wadley successfully persuaded Christian Church leaders to locate their newest rural college in their little town. One of the many reasons Wadley was chosen was the remarkable support for the college exhibited by members of the community. Not only did local citizens help raise some $22,000 to launch the college, a cashier at the Bank of Wadley named John M. Hodge donated 44-plus acres of prime land for use as the school’s campus.
Within a few years of opening, the school had changed its name to Southern Union College and was experiencing a steady growth in enrollment. But it also struggled financially, even closing its doors for a short time in 1933 when it faced a looming bankruptcy. But the school soon reopened with the help from local citizens, some of whom even mortgaged their own farms to pay the school’s debt.
That remarkable sense of community and ingenuity also got the school through the Great Depression, during which time school leaders developed work-study programs and took food, farm animals and other supplies in exchange for tuition. All the while, students received an exemplary education from the college’s highly qualified faculty members, some of whom hailed from Ivy League colleges and prestigious art and music schools.
Today, Southern Union alumni continue to find success in the world and often credit the school’s powerful sense of community for their success.
Commitment to community
Louise James Cox of LaFayette, Ala., experienced that community commitment firsthand. “I’ve been involved with Southern Union since I was a child because my mother and grandmother were Congregational Christians,” Cox says. She vividly recalls attending fall Harvest Days when all the Congregational Christian churches (there were more than 30 in the area at the time) took food to the college to stock the school’s larder. But Cox, a 1964 SUSCC graduate, also credits Southern Union’s leaders for encouraging her to come back to school at the age of 29 and a few years later hiring her to teach at the college for another 25 years.
“To me, that place is sacred,” she said of Southern Union, especially of the Wadley campus. “When I walk over there, I feel the love of so many people that made that little school and made it affordable for people in this area that couldn’t have gone to school.”
Desmond Nunn, a 2012 graduate, echoes Cox’s sentiment. He came to Southern Union right out of high school, unsure about his career path. But with the help of the school’s performing arts faculty Nunn discovered his innate talent as a dancer and singer. He is now traveling the country as a principal in the national tour of “Hamilton: The Musical.”
“Southern Union was the launching pad,” he says. “If I had dreams, Southern Union was the rocket. I would never have gotten to space without this place.”
It is that sense of community and commitment that Southern Union’s current leaders plan to take forward.
“Community is what drives and inspires us,” says Southern Union President Todd Shackett. “We are committed to continuing that partnership to help make our communities stronger through education, and we look forward to the next 100 years of growing and advancing together.”
That spirit of community and Southern Union’s long history in the community will be celebrated from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 15 on the Wadley campus and all are invited. The free event features food, games and alumni reunions and performances. To learn more visit Southern Union’s Facebook or other social media feeds or go to www.suscc.edu.