Mars Hill College opened initially as French Broad Baptist Academy, taking its name from the French Broad Baptist Association. In 1856, Edward Carter donated the land for the institute, and local sponsors provided the financial resources. However, the money supporting the school’s development ran out quickly, and a slave named Joe, owned by trustee J. W. Anderson, was seized and placed in the Asheville jail by the contractor as collateral. Trustees raised the required funds through public gifts, and the institute’s buildings were finished by the year’s end.
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Two years later, the North Carolina General Assembly granted the school the title Mars Hill College, after the Biblical passage Acts 17:22: “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars Hill.” The school remained opened during the first two years of the Civil War, but closed in 1863. Union and Confederate troops were quartered in the college’s buildings in 1865. Several buildings on campus were damaged during the war, and soldiers burned a dormitory and teacher’s home.
Despite the damage, the school reopened at the war’s end. From 1872 to 1878, the school closed, and the buildings functioned as a branch of the Oxford Masonic Orphanage as well as a “subscription school.” Mars Hill reopened in 1879, but remained financially unstable and continued to struggle throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Fourteen school presidents served between 1865 and 1897.
In 1897, the trustees persuaded Robert Lee Moore, a Wake Forest University alumnus, to take the position of president. Moore reformed the school, changing the curriculum and establishing formal guidelines concerning tuition and other matters. Under Moore’s administration, Mars Hill regained prominence and in 1921 achieved junior college status. In 1937 the school eliminated its high school division entirely. The following year Moore retired, and was replaced by Hoyt Blackwell, a Greek and Latin professor.
Blackwell oversaw the development of Mars Hill as a four-year institution, and the awarding of the school’s first baccalaureate degrees in 1964. In 1961, the year before James Meredith was denied entrance into the University of Mississippi, Mars Hill became one of the earliest in the South to admit African-American students. The first black student was Oralene Graves, the great-great-granddaughter of Joe Anderson, the slave seized as collateral during the school’s founding. Joe’s grave was moved to the campus in the 1932 and a monument subsequently was erected in his memory.
Mars Hill College presently encompasses over 200 acres of land with 32 buildings. Currently, the school enrolls nearly 1,500 students and offers bachelor’s degrees in 31 majors. The school’s dance team, the “Bailey Mountain Cloggers,” have won thirteen national championships.
John Angus McLeod, From These Stones: Mars Hill College, 1856-1968 (1968)
Clarence D. Creasman, Moore of Mars Hill (1950)
William S. Powell, Higher Education in North Carolina (1964)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina History (2006)—entry by James I. Martin Sr.
Lenoir News-Topic, February 24, 1988
Mars Hill College website: http://www.mhc.edu/