Because he refused to release state funds to build a new campus in 1915, Governor Charles Henderson set in motion events that led to Troy University occupying its current home.
Born in 1860 in Grangers Mill (now Henderson) in Pike County, Charles Henderson became a wealthy businessman, a civic booster, an office holder, and an education proponent. His mercantile family moved to Troy in 1869, where Henderson was educated in some of the dozen private academies in town. In 1875, he enrolled in Howard College in Marion (now Samford College in Birmingham) but stayed only two years, returning to enter his family’s business after his father died in 1877.
He founded or was an initial investor in a number of important companies, including the Alabama Midland Railroad and its construction arm. He was a cotton buyer and compress operator who planted 5000 peach trees on his property to diversify crops. He reorganized the Troy Iron Works and directed the Standard Chemical and Oil Company. He established Troy’s first telephone exchange as well as the Pea River Power Company to supply Troy with electricity. In 1906, he became president of Troy Bank and Trust, a position he held until his death in 1937.
Henderson was also a civic booster and office holder. He joined a volunteer fire brigade that elected him its president in 1886 and changed its name to the Charles Henderson Fire Company No. 1. That same year, Troy’s young men helped elect him mayor. At age 26, Henderson represented a generational shift in power across the South. He remained mayor until 1891, then served again 1901-1906 when he became president of the Alabama Railroad Commission. He served as governor from 1915 until 1919, then in the 1920s was appointed to the State Docks Commission and the board of trustee of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University).
During his first year as mayor of Troy, Henderson was instrumental in securing a Normal College for the city. Alabama had created three Normals to provide potential white teachers with the last two years of high school and two years of pedagogical training. Competition was stiff to site more, and in November 1886, Pike County representative S. McLeod introduced legislation for a school in Troy. Henderson lobbied for its passage in February 1887.
To get the Normal, Troy had to provide land and a suitable building. Mayor Henderson helped site the campus in the block northwest of Academy Street and N. Brundidge St. and to raise the first building. The legislature empowered Troy to create a city school system that became the Normal’s lab school. Henderson served as its ex-officio president and helped hire the teaching staff. The first grade teacher, Laura Montgomery of Raleigh, NC, only lasted a year — in 1888, she married Henderson.
Henderson served on the new college’s board of trustees from 1887 until 1899. As a civic booster who wanted the campus to remain downtown, he opposed the faculty’s wish to expand by moving to a larger campus.
This issue festered until 1911, when the legislature appropriated $40,000 for Troy Normal to build a girls’ dormitory. The faculty and governing board agreed that the Normal should buy a 79-acre parcel on Orion Road and use the appropriation to build there. However, Governor O’Neal could not provide the funds, which left it to his successor to sort out. O’Neal’s successor was Charles Henderson.
Henderson refused to release the funds for erecting buildings on the new campus. Instead, the Normal gave in and built a dorm, named for Laura Henderson, in a corner of the downtown campus. In 1919, it sold the Orion Road land and tried to make the downtown campus work by buying what adjacent land it could. It turned three houses on that land into two more girls’ dorms and a boys’ dorm. The next year, the State Board of Education provided funds to build a new laboratory school, but most agreed it could not be done on the downtown campus.
Henderson’s opposition to moving the campus in 1911 and 1915 almost had dire consequences. Three other cities vied to have Troy Normal move to them, but the Troy’s shakers-and-movers, working with a State Board of Education committee that included Henderson’s successor, Governor Thomas Kilby, put together a financing package to buy a 275-acre lot that Troy University has occupied since 1930.
The Normal paid $20,000 in cash and traded a $10,000 dairy farm it owned for the new campus. The cash came from the city; earlier it had let a bond issue to build a city auditorium but diverted the proceeds to keep the Normal in Troy. In exchange, the Normal gave its downtown campus to the city that used the main academic building for its auditorium. The city still owns the property and has placed its utility office and warehouse there.
Thus, indirectly, Charles Henderson played a central role in placing Troy University on its campus. If he had made the state appropriation available after 1915, Troy University would have located on its property north of town.
Lee N. Allen, “Charles Henderson (1915-19),” Encyclopedia of Alabama, published February 12, 2008, updated June 1, 2021, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1461.
Margaret Pace Farmer, One Hundred Fifty Years in Pike County, Alabama, 1821-1971 (Anniston: Higginbotham, Inc., 1973)
E. M. Shackelford, The First Fifty Years of the State Teachers College of Troy, Alabama (Montgomery: The Paragon Press, 1937).