History On The Hill
As the oldest college in Alabama, Spring Hill College has a nearly 200-year history to look back on. It’s a history that features groundbreaking attitudes, tragedies, and renewal, a history that continues to grow with each new class that arrives on campus.
Join us as we take a look back at how the College came to be, and how it continues to serve the community and the greater world around it.
It all started with a hill and a vision.
Starting On Higher Ground
The land we know as Spring Hill today was part of a Spanish land grant purchased by Mobile resident William Robertson, who divided the land into five-acre plots in the wake of Alabama’s admittance as a state to the U.S. Robertson befriended Rev. Michael Portier, Mobile’s first Catholic bishop who had eyes on establishing a college, seminary and boarding school.
Robertson offered Portier 10 acres for free and sold additional acres at a reduced price. Portier was able to secure more land from the City of Mobile, which had federal land tagged for educational purposes.
For a total of $400 (or about $13,000 today), Portier acquired 380 acres that included a spring-fed lake and fronted the federal mail route that went from Washington, D.C. all the way to Pascagoula, Ms. While his French missionary priest partners wanted to build the College on the lake, Portier pushed construction to higher ground.
Before being named Bishop of Mobile, Portier was a priest in New Orleans, La. He had lived through some of the yellow fever outbreaks during his ministry. Positioning the Spring Hill College campus at a higher point in the area, away from the marshes and wetlands where mosquitos thrived and could spread the disease, was critical for him.
“When he came to Mobile he wanted a location that would be on a hill and out of the lowlands,” said Fr. Christopher Viscardi, SJ, who has taught at Spring Hill College for 43 years and is the College’s de facto historian. “This was the perfect spot for Spring Hill.”
Portier and his team dug two deep wells to access the aquifer. Between the bountiful water and connection to the federal road, Spring Hill College couldn’t have any better access to the community and the region it looked out upon.
The College opened in 1830, making it the first college to open in Alabama. The first classes were held that July, with the original faculty consisting of “two professors of English language, two of Latin and one of Spanish, a professor of Mathematics and a Director General of studies,” according to Portier’s Prospectus published that year.
Forged in Fire
A few years after opening, the College faced its first of many challenges. The financial crisis of 1837 hit area families hard and drove down enrollment at the school. At the same time, Bishop Portier and his priests were needed for other projects as the Mobile Diocese grew.
After short leadership stints from the Fathers of Mercy and Eudists (the Congregation of Jesus and Mary), the Jesuits arrived on campus in 1847, and they have been here ever since.
Under Jesuit leadership, the College again began building momentum and growing. The main college building was completed and expanded, as more land was bought around the College property in the 1850s.
Just as SHC began doing well, the U.S. began tearing itself apart. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, many students went off to fight the war. For those who remained, the war came to them.
“Mobile became a war zone with the federal blockade, which made it much harder to get to Spring Hill,” Viscardi said. “Students were already coming here from around the country, but many families either stopped sending students or called them back home.”
During the last year of the Civil War in 1865, with Mobile falling under federal control, the College became a refugee camp. Union troops even occupied the College for a few weeks.
A few years later, in February 1869, a massive fire broke out on campus and burned down most of campus. But the second Bishop of Mobile, John Quinlan, was ready to keep the College going. He led several fundraisers and had the current Lucey Administration Center erected, ready for occupancy by early winter.
Even still, the College was plagued first by the Reconstruction economy of the South and the Economic Depression of 1873. In 1883, only 11 boys showed up to the opening of the school in October due to an epidemic of yellow fever in the region. The epidemic would linger for the next two decades, creating a crisis of enrollment even as the College celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1905.
“They started recovering from that, but then in 1909 there was another fire on the east end of the college building,” Viscardi said. “We rebuilt once again, but there were roadblocks in the way.”
In the early 20th century, Spring Hill moved away from the old European college system and transitioned to a separate high school and college. The high school was later discontinued in 1935 as the area felt the effects of the Great Depression.
“When the Depression hit and the local and regional economy slowed down, again the College struggled to keep things going,” Viscardi said. “Fortunately, we had a military training program on campus – similar to an ROTC program today – which helped keep the College open.”
The College also moved to admit women, becoming one of the first coeducational colleges in the state, in the late 1930s. This progressive move was a sign of things to come.
First in Integration
For many colleges and universities in the South, integration on campus occurred during the 1960s amidst racial tension and backlash.
For Spring Hill, integration happened much sooner, and without disturbance or hysteria, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recalled in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963.
Successive presidents of Spring Hill, Patrick Donnelly, S.J., and Andrew Smith, S.J., brought landmark changes to the College after World War II. Both men viewed racial segregation as an ethical and moral dilemma, and in 1954 Smith presided over the enrollment of nine African-American students to the college. Fannie Smith Motley became the first Black student to graduate from a four-year college or university in Alabama – doing so with honors – in 1956.
For the following decade, Spring Hill was the first and only integrated college in the Deep South. Not that this decision didn’t have consequences, Viscardi said.
“Integration made it more difficult to raise funds because the College was seen as too radical,” Viscardi said. “A lot of local benefactors gave less than before because of integration. But Spring Hill persisted for what was right.”
In 1957, students fought back against the forces looking to do away with integration. The local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to put more pressure on the College and decided to sneak onto campus in the early-morning hours to burn a cross.
“But they did this during final exam week, so a lot of the students were up late studying,” Viscardi said. “When they saw it happening, they grabbed bricks and ran down and ran them off. They kept the cross as a trophy.”
The Hill Today
Fr. Viscardi started teaching at Spring Hill College in January 1979. The beauty of the campus that struck him then has only matured. While development has taken away views of Downtown Mobile and the harbor, Spring Hill remains one of the preferred neighborhoods in the city, with the College serving as its anchor.
“The College still acts as a park and a gathering place for the Village of Spring Hill,” Viscardi said. “You always see people from the community enjoying our campus, as there is still a naturally beautiful place.”
Spring Hill is a place with nearly 200 years worth of history, struggles, and tribulations. But it’s also a place of resilience and persistence, a cornerstone that still offers those who attend its guiding principle of cura personalis – the Jesuit belief in care for the whole person and service to others.
It’s a place you really have to see to understand. Book your visit to The Hill today, and you may write the next chapter in Spring Hill’s history.
ABOUT SPRING HILL COLLEGE:
Founded in 1830, Spring Hill College is the oldest Catholic college in the Southeast and the third oldest Jesuit college in the United States. Spring Hill combines the Jesuit tradition of excellence in education and a commitment to caring for the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – with innovative educational experiences. Located in Mobile, Ala., Spring Hill’s mission is to form leaders engaged in learning, faith, justice and service for life. As a result, Spring Hill students are engaged, inspired and transformed by their experiences.