For years locals pushed the state Methodist conference for a university in eastern Alabama. After losing out to Greensboro in a fundraising race, Auburn waited another three years before the East Alabama Male College (EAMC) was founded in 1859. In its first term, a staff of six professors taught 80 undergraduate students, most of whom were from the area. Those from out of town boarded with local residents. The curriculum, developed at Yale in 1828, focussed on Greek, Latin, philosophy, math, and natural sciences, and the campus consisted of a single building: the Old Main.
Less than a year after EAMC awarded its first bachelor’s degrees, the college shut its doors at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, and the Old Main was converted into a Confederate hospital
Like many colleges in Reconstruction-era South, EAMC struggled after the war. After reopening in 1866 with significantly fewer students and resources, the board of directors spent years trying to boost enrollment before transferring ownership over to the state. In 1862, Alabama had passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which gave it 240,000 acres of federal land that could be sold to fund an agricultural and mechanical college; EAMC was chosen, and its name was changed to the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College (Alabama A&M).
Under the Morrill Land Grant Act, recipients of government funds were required to take classes in military science and “useful arts”, which led to a generation of push-and-pull between the Alabama A&M officials and classicists. Students were required to wear military uniforms, march to class, and attend church every Sunday.
Over the 1880s and ‘90s, Alabama A&M created distinct engineering and science departments, a pharmacy program, and general education courses. In 1899, the state changed Alabama A&M’s name to Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) to reflect the school’s evolution “into an institution where students are taught not only the branches that relate to agricultural and mechanical arts but also the sciences and arts in general that relate to the industrial development of modern civilization.”
In 1885, after years of fraternities operating unofficially on campus, the president of Auburn formally acknowledged their existence. By the turn of the century, hazing was already a problem, as were tensions between the Greeks and the GDIs (“God Damn Independents”). In 1901, the division was so stark that the Independents published their own yearbook without fraternity members. In spite of these issues, the first fraternity house (Lambda Chi Alpha) was built on Campus in 1916, and Greek life continues to flourish at Auburn.
Though the school board had considered admitting women as early as 1869, it wasn’t until 1892 that women were first enrolled at API. It would be another twelve years before the female student body grew appreciably, and it was only because API added a major in which women could be employed: home economics. Still, Auburn was the first four-year coeducational university in Alabama and the second in the Southeast.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, API worked with the agricultural commissioner of Alabama on the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, which led to canning and corn clubs for rural children in the state and the creation of the Agricultural Extension Department, which went on to receive federal grants that supported the college. During the First World War, the College of Agriculture organized 10,000 youths into canning and livestock clubs on the homefront while over 1000 Auburn students enlisted to fight.
As it had for decades, the university struggled financially in the Interwar period. At the height of the Great Depression in 1932, API faculty went unpaid for ten months. After the outbreak of World War II, enrollment plummeted by two-thirds, and the class schedule was changed to accommodate an accelerated track for military-bound students.
The 1950s and ‘60s saw multiple changes that transformed the school into what it is today.
After the war, the student population jumped from 2000 to over 8000 in just two years. In order to house the students, API converted a prisoner of war camp in nearby Opelika into dormitories. The university saw massive restructuring and was awarded accreditation from the Association of American Universities, and in 1960 the school’s name was changed to its longtime nickname, Auburn University.
While football had been introduced in 1892 and grown increasingly popular on campus and throughout the state, API’s team was terrible until the 1950s, when Ralph “Shug” Jordan became head coach. Within ten years, Auburn had won a national championship, and the rivalry between Auburn and the University of Alabama was cemented when Paul “Bear” Bryant took over the latter’s team and brought houndstooth to the masses.
Because of its rural, Southern location, Auburn’s student body had long been conservative, and the culture clash of the 1960s largely missed the campus. Segregation remained in effect until 1964, ten years after Brown v. The Board of Education, when Harold Franklin enrolled as a graduate student in the face of opposition from the president of Auburn and members of the Alabama legislature.
In the past fifty years, Auburn has grown to a massive university with 25,000 students. It’s best known for its architectural and science programs (Auburn boasts six astronauts), and the College of Business is consistently ranked among the best in the country. Along with football, Auburn has successful basketball, swimming, and diving teams, with many athletes continuing on to the Olympics.