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Founder’s Day at Voorhees Normal and Industrial School

Founder’s Day has a long tradition at many historically black colleges and universities. The annual celebration by students, alumni, faculty, and staff provides an opportunity to recognize the history and legacy of each school and to honor the foundations from which each school was built. Founder’s Day often includes speakers and performances, and there is no better venue to report on such activities than the school newspaper. As part of Amistad’s blog series on HBCUs, we look at reporting on Founder’s Day celebrations in one school newspaper – The Southern Voice, which was published by Voorhees Normal and Industrial School in Denmark, South Carolina.

The Southern Voice, April 1932

Known today as Voorhees College, the school began in 1897 as the Denmark Industrial School for African Americans in the small town of Denmark, South Carolina. The school was founded by Elizabeth Evelyn Wright with the assistance of Jessie C. Dorsey of Detroit and Mrs. A.S. Steele of Boston. Wright, a native of Georgia, had attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and modeled her new school after Tuskegee’s curriculum.

A donation by New Jersey philanthropist Ralph Voorhees in 1902 was used to buy land and construct buildings for the school, and two years later, the South Carolina General Assembly incorporated the school and renamed it the Voorhees Industrial Institute for Colored Youths. The school later became affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and in 1947, it became known as the Voorhees School and Junior College. It became accreditated as a four-year college and received its present name of Voorhees College in 1962.

As part of its School Newspaper Collection, the Amistad Research Center holds forty issues of The Southern Voice, which began in 1904. Amistad’s issues date from 1925 to 1947, and while not a full run of the publication, those present do give a good indication as to the content common to the Voice, which focused on calls for support of the school, visiting speakers, letters from graduates, and some national news. As seen in the issues held at Amistad, Founder’s Day was traditionally held in late March or early April at Voorhees and the April or May issue of The Southern Voice typically contained news about the celebration.

The Southern Voice, April 1925

The April 1925 issue featured the program for that year, which included hymns and prayers, musical selections, speeches, and a processional to Elizabeth Wrights grave on the school grounds. Dr. Mabel Keith Howard’s Founder’s Day address was printed in full in the May 1926. Describing the built environment of the Voorhees Institute, Howard noted:

What do these silent buildings tell us about Elizabeth Wright? They tell us she had a mind to plan, a heart to dare, a hand to execute. They tell us that starting as she did in those pioneer days she had many difficulties, many obstacles…She did not live in the day of the auto, but foot sore and wary she trudged along talking up these buildings. She did not wear costly raiment; hers was the simple gown, I see her scantily clad and almost barefoot giving up the necessities of life that the scales of ignorance may be lifted from your eyes.

Similar sentiments are shared in other issues devoted to Founder’s Day at Voorhees. Such reporting gives today’s historians, school alumni, and current students a look into the history of HBUCs, as well as their founders and supporters.

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