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5 Star Stories Black History: The story behind Rust College

Updated: Mar. 2, 2021 at 8:54 PM CST
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HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. (WMC) - This 5 Star Story celebrating Black History shines a light on the oldest Historically Black College and University (HBCU) associated with the United Methodist Church, and the second oldest private college in Mississippi.

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We’re talking Rust College, where last summer, the school’s 12th president and the first woman was installed to lead the institution into the future.

The college is nestled in the idyllic Marshall County seat of Holly Springs, Mississippi which is 55 miles south of Memphis. It was founded in1866 by the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, just one year after slavery was abolished.

The liberal arts college is one of only 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities founded before 1868 still operating today.

According to Rust College President Ivy Taylor, “Historically Black Colleges came into existence to educate Black Americans, the vast majority came into existence after slavery, so that they could become self-sufficient in their new place in society as freed people.”

The church school originally accepted adults of all ages, as well as children, for elementary instruction.

“That was the case for many of the HBCU’s because the freed slaves had not had the opportunity to go to elementary, middle, high school,” explained Taylor.

In 1870, the institution was chartered as Shaw University after Reverend S.O. Shaw who gifted the school $10,000.

One of the school’s early trustees was a man named James Wells, whose daughter went on to become one of Shaw’s most notable graduates -- suffragist, activist and journalist Ida B. Wells.

“So this is where she got her start, just an example of the type of you know, of folks that we produce here,” said Taylor.

Today, the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation awards scholarships to three students each year who are entering their junior or senior year at Wells’ alma mater.

In 1892 the college name was changed to Rust University to avoid confusion with another Shaw University in North Carolina and in tribute to Richard S. Rust of Cincinnati, Ohio who was secretary of the Freedman’s Aid Society.

But, in 1915, the title was changed again to Rust College and in 1920, Dr. M.S. Davage became the institution’s first African American president. By 1953, the school began to function strictly as a college since public schools for African Americans were more widespread and there was no longer as much demand for private schools.

Today, the Rust campus occupies 126 acres which is a mix of buildings built in the mid-1800′s and newer facilities, including five gender-segregated dorms.

The campus is small by most standards with a student body that, pre-COVID-19, was only about 600 to 800. Administrators believe it makes for the perfect environment to nurture and connect with its Bearcats. And the students seem to agree.

“Because they’re very family orientated. Like everything we do, we do together. When I need help, I can go to almost anybody and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with this,’ or ‘Hey, do you know the best way for me to do this or do that,’ and they’re able to help me,” gushed Freshman Britney Johnson.

In 2019 Rust graduate Angelica Owens loved the family feel on campus so much, she returned to campus as an employee hoping to share her experiences with the newest crop of students.

“Even if I’m missing class, like, they have my personal number to text me, ‘Where are you? What’s going on and why are you not here?” shared Owens.

Other famous Bearcat includes Disco Anita Ward, Royal Studios’ Willie Mitchell, Activist Alvin Childress from TV’s “Amos and Andy,” and Larry Anderson, the current head basketball coach at MIT who graduated in ’87 with a degree in physical education and recreation.

Rust is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The school has five departments of study: Mathematics and Science, Humanities, Business, Social Sciences, and Education, with plans to expand into Health Sciences.

The Mississippi HBCU also has a Mass Communications program with an operational television and radio station.

“I love the idea of giving students hands-on experience and the opportunity to think critically about the issues that are going on around us. And given the moment that we’re in, as far as what’s happening here in the United States, I just think it’s so important to be able to train Black journalists,” said Taylor.

Rust College graduate Marshonn Calvin is a living and local example of that.

He now shares his alma mater’s mission of “leadership and service in a global society,” with his own broadcast students at Millington Central High School. He’s led them through assignments that have garnered numerous national awards, nursed them through personal difficulties during their high school years -- he even helps shepherd them beyond the school’s doors into college and careers.

“And you know I’m always pushing them to not just look at what we’re doing for Millington High School but you know what we’re doing as humanitarians what we’re doing as, you know, people that are growing as journalists. All they have to do is believe in themselves and they just need some encouragement,” said Calvin, adding that it’s the same type of encouragement he got and still gets from his Rust College professors.

“Those people right now even though that we’ve been out of Rust in 20 some odd years, they’re still there you know, and they still love and care about us and they still want to see what our kids are doing,” said Calvin. “So you know it’s -- to have people like that in your life is very, it’s a wonderful thing and I love Rust College.”

Calvin is now also a nominee for the National Life Group’s Life Changer of the Year award.

Incidentally, Rust College acquired the campus of the former Mississippi Industrial College, also a Historically Black College, that closed in 1982. It was founded in 1905 by the Mississippi Conference of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, but after the desegregation of community colleges in the mid-20th century, it had trouble competing and eventually closed.

The campus was listed as a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the old buildings and property that remain were acquired by Rust College in 2008. Rust is in the process of raising money to restore the buildings. Click on this link for more information about HBCU’s in Holly Springs, Mississippi: https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/mississippi-industrial-society/.

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