Institutional History

Clark Atlanta University is a comprehensive, private, urban, coeducational institution of higher education with a predominantly African-American heritage. It offers undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees as well as certificate programs to students of diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The University was established in 1988 through the consolidation of its two parent institutions, Atlanta University (1865), the nation’s first institution to award graduate degrees to African Americans, and Clark College (1869) the nation’s first four-year liberal arts college to serve a primarily African-American student population.    

A Unique History

Atlanta University, founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association, with subsequent assistance from the Freedman’s Bureau, was, before consolidation, the nation’s oldest graduate institution serving a predominantly African-American student body.  By the late 1870s, Atlanta University had begun granting bachelor’s degrees and supplying black teachers and librarians to public schools across the South.  In 1929-1930, the institution began offering graduate education exclusively in various liberal arts areas, and in the social and natural sciences.  It gradually added professional programs in social work, library science and business administration.  The institution during this period associated with Spelman and Morehouse colleges in a university plan known as the Atlanta University System.  The campus was moved to its present site, and the modern organization of the Atlanta University Center emerged.

The story of the Atlanta University Center over the next 20 years includes significant developments.  The schools of library science, education and business administration were established in 1941, 1944 and 1946, respectively.  The Atlanta School of Social Work, long associated with the University, gave up its charter in 1947, to officially become part of the University.  One of the founding faculty in the School of Social Work was W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote his most influential works during the 23 years he spent at Atlanta University, from 1897-1910 on the faculty of the history and economics departments, and later, from 1934-1944 as chair of the sociology department.   

Clark College was founded in 1869 as Clark University by the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which later would become the United Methodist Church.  The University today celebrates its historic bond with the denomination.  Clark University was named for Bishop Davis W. Clark, who was the first president of the Freedmen’s Aid Society and became bishop in 1864.  The first Clark College class was housed in a sparsely furnished room in Clark Chapel, a Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta’s Summer Hill section.  In 1871, the school relocated to a newly purchased property at Whitehall and McDaniel streets.  In 1877, the school was chartered as Clark University.

A Distinguished Heritage 

An early benefactor, Bishop Gilbert Haven, visualized Clark as “the university of all the Methodist schools founded for the education of freedmen”.  Strategically located in Atlanta, the gateway to the South, the institution was founded to “give tone” to all other institutions of the Methodist Episcopal Church providing education for Negro youth.  After several changes in location, Bishop Haven (who was Bishop Clark’s successor) helped acquire 450 acres in South Atlanta where, in 1880, the school conferred its first degree.  In 1883, Clark established a department in honor of Dr. Elijah H. Gammon, known as Gammon School of Theology.  By 1888, Gammon School of Theology became an independent seminary and, today, is part of the Interdenominational Theological Center.

For purposes of economy and efficiency, during the 1930’s, it was decided that Clark would join the Atlanta University Complex. While students on the South Atlanta campus fretted over final examinations in the winter of 1939, work was begun across town on an entirely new physical plant adjoining Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College.  Visitors to the campus today will see that part of that preparation remains intact.  Three vaults in the basement of Clark Atlanta University’s administration building, Harkness Hall, bear the names of each of the three institutions.  Since the administration of each institution was conducted out of Harkness Hall, their respective assets were secure there, as well.  In 1957, the controlling boards of six institutions (Atlanta University, Clark College, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College*, Spelman College and Gammon Theological Seminary ratified new articles of affiliation to create the Atlanta University Center, the most prevalent consortium of African-American private institutions of higher education in the United States.

During the 1980s some of the advantages of proximity, which had seemed promising earlier, again became evident. Clark College and Atlanta University through consolidation preserved the best of the past and present and “Charted a Bold New Future.” Clark Atlanta University was created on July 1, 1988.

Toward A Bright Future

The first President of Clark Atlanta University was Dr. Thomas W. Cole, Jr., who served concurrently as the President of both Atlanta University and Clark College prior to the 1988 consolidation.

In November 1987, after more than a year of discussion, the Boards of Trustees of Atlanta University and Clark College authorized an exploration of the potential advantages of closer working arrangements between the two institutions, including their consolidation into one university.

In April 1988, the joint committee delivered its report entitled Charting A Bold New Future: Proposed Combination of Clark College and Atlanta University to the Boards for ratification. The report recommended that the two schools be consolidated into a single institution. On June 24, 1988, the Boards of both Clark College and Atlanta University made the historic decision to consolidate the two institutions, creating Clark Atlanta University. The new and historic University inherits the rich traditions of two independent institutions, connected over the years by a common heritage and commitment; by personal, corporate and consortia relationships; and by location.

*The Atlanta University Center Consortium today comprises:  Clark Atlanta University, The Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College.