Virginia State University was the first state-supported African American college in America. Virginia State University was charted in 1882 as the "Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute" to fulfill a pledge to the Readjuster party, led by former Confederate general William Mahone, to establish a state institute of higher education for blacks. The term "normal" referred to teacher training programs. The "collegiate institute" included training in higher mathematics and humanities subjects. The college included an all black board of visitors, faculty, and college level programs. This major event in the history of Virginia came two hundred and sixty three years after the first Africans arrived at Point Comfort in 1619 and seventeen years after slavery was abolished in Virginia. In 1923, the college's name was changed to "Virginia State College for Negroes." In 1946, the parent school was renamed "Virginia State College." In 1979 the Virginia legislature passed a law giving it university status, and the current name "Virginia State University."
In the first academic year, 1883-84, the University had 126 students and seven African American faculty; one building, 33 acres, a 200-book library, and a $20,000 budget. By the centennial year of 1982, the University was fully integrated, with a student body of nearly 5,000, a full-time faculty of about 250, a library containing 200,000 books, a 236-acre campus and 416-acre farm, 15 dormitories, and 16 classroom buildings.
Two of the oldest buildings on campus are Vawter Hall and the Old President's House. Vawter Hall was built in 1908 and named in honor of Charles E. Vawter, the school's late rector and authority on industrial training. The Old President's House was constructed circa 1913. Originally these buildings formed the eastern boundary of the college quadrangle.
The area known today as "Ettrick" where VSU stands consists of approximately three to four square miles along the north shore of the Appomattox River, opposite the city of Petersburg. The area was the site of an Appomattocs Indian town, two plantations, numerous mills, and Virginia State University. Two of the largest plantations on the Appomattox River, Ettrick Banks and Matoaca, were on the land now occupied by the University. Enslaved labor produced the tobacco and grain that made these two plantation prosper. Ettrick Banks encompassed over 500 acres of land and 24 slaves. West of Ettrick Banks was Matoaca, the childhood home of John Randolph of Roanoke, and St. George Tucker from 1778 to 1788. When Matoaca was sold in 1795 the plantation consisted of around 1300 acres and 71 enslaved persons. Around 1800, grist mills were established in the area and much of the land was converted to residential use. The development of the mills effectively destroyed the plantations as economic units. All of Ettrick Banks, with the exception of approximately one hundred acres, became the town of Ettrick.
In 1883, thirty acres of the original Ettrick Banks were sold to the State of Virginia, and the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University) was established here. Since 1883, Virginia State University has acquired over 600 acres of the original Ettrick Banks and Motoaca.
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