WAAY 31 Black History Month Spotlight: William Hooper Councill, landmark educator and renowned orator

One of Councill's most notable achievements was his role in founding and serving as the first principal of the Colored Normal School, which eventually became Alabama A&M University.

Posted: Feb 1, 2021 8:35 PM
Updated: Feb 1, 2021 10:43 PM

When discussing great educators in Alabama's history, no conversation is complete without bringing in William Hooper Councill.

Born into slavery on July 12, 1849, on the Councill Plantation in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Councill and his family became quite resilient.

William Hooper Councill (center) with his family. (Courtesy: Alabama A&M University) William Hooper Councill (center) with his family. (Courtesy: Alabama A&M University)

He and his mother were solder to a Huntsville attorney David Humphrey in 1857. But when the Union soldiers occupied Chattanooga, Tennesse, they were able to escape to the North.

After the war, in 1865, Councill returned to north Alabama and learned at a Quaker-established school for freedmen in Stevenson, Alabama, for three years.

With that as his only formal education, Councill went onto found the Lincoln School in Huntsville, that would educate black children.

"He partnered with Reuben Jones, who was one of the first legislators in Alabama. It was that connection where Councill realized that he had to have deep political roots in order to establish a sustainable education for freedmen in Alabama," said Eddie Davis Jr., a biographer of Councill.

Davis spent several years researching and writing his story about Councill, "William Hooper Councill: The Greatest Negro the Race Ever Produced."

He also graduated from another one of the schools that Councill helped establish in Madison County, the Colored Normal School at Huntsville, which was created in part through a legislative act on December 9, 1873. It would become a land-grant institutuion in 1891 and eventually come to be called "Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University."

Davis said part of Councill's goal in helping to foster education for Black children and young adults is that he wanted them to be able to translate their learned skills into a livelihood.

"He wanted to make sure that they were still sufficient in agriculture. He wanted to make sure they were still sufficient in the mechanical arts, things they had mastered on the slave plantation, now freed, he wanted to make sure they could also monetize on the master craft that they had already developed in years past," Davis said.

The A&M campus underwent a big change in 2020. It completed the demolition of Prentice Hall, a building that stood nearby where Councill and his wife are laid to rest. It its place, they are erecting a large memorial courtyard for Councill that will include an eternal flame. 

School officials said that project is scheduled to be completed on September 21, 2021.

Councill was also extremely accomplished beyond his work in education. 

In 1893, he had the opportunity to speak at the Colombian World Expo in Chicago, which catapulted him onto the global stage. He spoke in several countries for prominent audiences and expressed that with education and opportunity, Black people could become valuable members of society.

He pointed back to the successes seen in Alabama.

Councill was also active in the political realm. A few years after arriving in Huntsville as a free man, he became active in the Republican Party and was elected to serve as the Assistant Enrolling Clerk in the Alabama Legislature from 1872 to 1874. 

He would eventually switch his party affiliation to the Democratic Party. Councill believed that he would not succeed as a Black Republican in the post-Reconstruction era.

In a speech in Tuscumbia, he said to Black residents who wanted to stay with the Republican Party "The republican party will grow tired of you... and like the bat who was disowned by the beasts and not recognized by the birds, you will find favor with neither democrats or republicans." 

Councill also served as the founder and editor of the Huntsville Herald from 1877 to 1884.

He eventually died in 1909 at the age of 61. 

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