Roach, Mattie A.
Autograph Letter Signed, Nashville Institute, Nashville,      Tennessee, February 27, 1878, to the "S. S. Chicago"

octavo, 3 pages, of a bi-folium, on the letterhead of the Nashville Institute, written in brown ink, in a legible hand, portion of mailing envelope present, else very good.

Mattie Roach, an African American student at the Nashville Institute (precursor to Roger Williams University), the daughter of slaves writes to a Sunday School in Chicago, discussing her aspirations both for herself and for other newly freed African Americans:

"To the S. S. at Chicago,

My dear friends

Having heard of you through your pastor and being requested by him to write you; I thought it my pleasing duty to do so. I always count it a privilege to write to those who are interested in our school, and when I heard that you were interested I at once considered you friends. I have been a student of this school for nearly four years. I with many others are trying to obtain an education that we may be of use to our people. It is the greatest desire of our hearts to serve God aright, and to lead others to trust him. This we can never do unless we first learn of him ourselves. God who knows what we need has given us just such a school and teachers as are wanted in the south. And if we will only trust Him, He will do still greater things than these for us. Our school is larger this year than formerly, which is quite an encouragement to our teachers and also to our friends. It shows that our people are feeling the need of an education more than ever; and it is only through the influence which the students of our Institution shall exert that we can ever hope to be a respected race. True slavery has passed away but it has left its effects on the hearts and brains of our mothers and fathers, which we the children must strive prayerfuly to eradicate. Through the adorable will of God darkness and superstition are passing slowly but surely away. Through the thick gloom of the present I can see a brighter day for the sons and daughters of Africa. I have long cherished a hope of being a foreign missionary if it's the will of God. Sometimes I think it is His will for me to go to that benight [sic] land. If it is not, I know that He has work for me to do, and whether it be in America or in Africa I want to do my best. Will you not pray for us that we may make rapid progress in our studies and that our lives may be a blessing to others? Hoping to hear from you.

I am 

Your obedient servant

Mattie A. Roach"


Roger Williams University,  (1866-1929) one of four colleges founded in Nashville for freed slaves, began in 1864 as Bible classes in the home of Daniel W. Phillips, a white Baptist minister from Massachusetts. The Reverend Phillips (1809-1890) was assisted by fellow ministers Henry L. Wayland, J. R. Graves, and Thomas Skinner. The pastor of the First Colored Baptist Church allowed the school to move to the basement of the church at Pearl and Walnut Streets. A mission of the white First Baptist Church, the black congregation was pastored by Nelson G. Merry.

In 1866 the so-called "Baptist College" was named the Nashville Normal and Theological Institute and relocated in Union Army barracks on Cedar (Charlotte) between Spruce (Eighth Avenue, North) and McLemore (Ninth Avenue, North) streets. The American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York, local blacks and other contributors funded the freedmen's school.

In 1867 the school moved into a two-story frame building at Park and Polk streets. Merry traveled to Memphis and held church benefits to raise money for the school. In 1869 a group headed by Phillips attempted to purchase surplus Union Army Fort Gillem adjacent to them at Salem (18th Avenue, North) and Jefferson Streets but Fisk University bought the property. When Fisk's Jubilee Hall rose next door, Phillips raised $ 30,000 and purchased thirty acres of the William H. Gordon farm on Hillsboro Road by 1874.

On February 13, 1883, the school was incorporated as Roger Williams University. Several African Americans, including Merry and Randall V. Vandavall (1832-1898), served on the board of trustees. The school added a master's degree in 1886 and continued to expand until the 1890s, when student rebellion and white suburbanization of West Nashville caused its decline.

After Vanderbilt University established itself in the vicinity and the Belmont area was under development by realtors, a realtor offered the American Baptist Home Mission Society $ 150,000 for the Roger Williams campus. The discussion whether to sell the campus was influenced by the student rebellion of 1888-1889, in which the black students had charged the president with racism and caused him to resign. But the ABHMS refused to sell the school.

On the night of January 24, 1905, a mysterious fire destroyed Centennial Hall. The school reopened, but on May 22, 1905, another fire of unknown origin leveled Mansion House. The American Baptist Home Mission Society closed Roger Williams University and subsequently sold part of the land to realtors and the rest to George Peabody College for Teachers by 1911. Realtors subdivided the land for resale, with covenants on the deeds that restricted sale to any "person of African descent."

Local black leaders were upset that the white Baptists had closed "their school" built by Merry, Vandavall, and Phillips. As a result, the Negro Baptist Association of Tennessee formed the Tennessee Missionary and Education Association to raise $ 10,000 and purchase a new campus on Whites Creek Pike. In the fall of 1909, Roger Williams University was reopened in North Nashville, with its first black president. By 1922, however, there were only 159 students and twelve faculty members. On July 12, 1927, the decision was made to merge the school with Howe Institute in Memphis (LeMoyne-Owen College). The students and teachers left for Memphis on December 29, 1929.