On April 1, 1868, Brigadier General Samuel Armstrong (Superintendent of the Freedmen's Bureau of the Ninth District of Virginia) opened Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to serve the growing community of freed people who had gathered in the Hampton area during and after the Civil War. Armstrong modeled Hampton after the Hilo Manual Labor School in Hawaii where his father served as Hawaiian minister of education.
The Butler School, which was succeeded in 1889 by the Whittier School, was used as a practice ground for teaching students of the Hampton Normal School.
The school was chartered as Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1870. By 1872, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was flourishing, drawing students from all over the country. Seventy Native American men and women were accepted in 1878, beginning an education program that spanned more than 40 years, with the last student graduating in 1923. Booker T. Washington, class of 1875, is Hampton's most famous graduate.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Hampton Normal School saw a dramatic increase in enrollment and educational offerings, which created a need not only for additional dormitory space, but also for auxiliary facilities. Many of these buildings were built by Hampton students.
During the late 1900s and throughout the 1920s, the curriculum was enhanced to meet college-level standards. A Library Science School was established in 1924 and an extension program was begun in 1929 to reach students who were unable to come to campus. In the Principal's report of 1929, Hampton President Dr. James Edward Gregg stated that "Hampton Institute is now a college...every one of its collegiate divisions or schools - Agriculture, Home Economics, Education, Business, Building, Librarianship, Music - is fitting its students for their life-work as teachers or as practitioners in their chosen calling."
It wasn't until 1940 that high-ranking administrative positions were given to African Americans (in contrast, the staff was interracial). In 1949, Dr. Alonzo G. Moron became the first African-American president of Hampton Institute. During the Civil Rights era, on February 11, 1960, a group of Hampton Institute students were the first in Virginia to stage a lunch counter sit-in, to protest the refusal of local businesses to serve blacks and whites equally. The social unrest of the 1960s spilled over into the 1970s as students demanded a wider variety of courses, coed living on campus, and a stronger voice in the Administrative Council and the Board of Trustees.
In 1984, the recommendation was made to change the school's name to Hampton University.
Classes were originally held in old hospital barracks. By 1874, the Virginia-Cleveland Hall, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, was complete. The students participated in some of the construction. Hunt also designed the Academic Hall completed in 1881. The chapel, in Romanesque Revival style, was designed by J.C. Cady and completed in 1886.
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