About William Harper

William A. Harper graduated from Elon in 1899 and, after earning a Master’s Degree from Yale, came back to join the faculty in 1905 (Latin and Religion).  He was named Dean in 1908 and Elon’s fourth President in 1911, a position he held for 20 years.  As president, Harper helped Elon rally from a devastating fire in 1923, advocated for education, and wrote prolifically on Christian ethics.  He also served as onetime chairman of the “Board of Control” for Elon’s sister school, all-Black Franklinton College and led a posse that arrested John Jeffries on suspicion of rape in 1920, facilitating Jeffries’ unlawful lynching hours later.  In 2020, an alumna started an online petition to change the name of Harper Hall, which reached fruition in July of that year.  Harpers’ complex career invites readers to grapple with the meaning of early-twentieth-century white progressivism, which coexisted with white terror and segregation.

Timeline

  • 1889
    Incorporation of Elon College
    The North Carolina Legislature issues a charter for Elon College, a four-year coeducational institution, located at Mill Point and founded by the Christian Church.
  • 1898
    Disfranchisement of Black Voters
    Whites stage a coup d’etat in Wilmington, North Carolina, massacring Black politicians, destroying Black-owned property, and clearing the way for formal disfranchisement of Black voters in the state.
  • 1899
    Harper Graduates
    William A. Harper graduates from Elon College.
  • 1901
    Charles Brantley Aycock
    Charles Brantley Aycock elected as the progressive “Education Governor” of NC.
  • 1910
    "The Great White Hope"
    Jack Johnson, Black Heavyweight Champion of the World, defeats James Jeffries, “The Great White Hope” in a highly publicized fight in Nevada.
  • 1911
    Harper Becomes President
    Harper named Fourth President of Elon College.
  • 1920
    James Jeffries
    Harper leads posse to arrest James Jeffries, suspected of sexual assault. A second mob abducts Jeffries and murders him without a trial later that same day.
  • 1923
    Campus Fire
    Elon burns, and Harper rallies funds to rebuild on a larger scale.
  • 2011
    Harper Hall Dedicated
    A new student residence hall is named William A. Harper Hall, in honor of Elon’s fourth president.
  • 2020
    Removal
    Harper’s name removed from the building that bore it.

Sources

Primary Sources

  • William A. Harper, “White Supremacy Endangered,” Christian Sun (July 13, 1910). – Harper uses Jack Johnson’s recent boxing victory to discuss threats to white supremacy–and proposes an Elon education as the answer.
  • “Judge Allen Pleads for Sanctity of Law,” Raleigh News and Observer (August 26, 1920). – There are many newspaper articles covering the arrest and murder of John Jeffries, several of which are available on the website for the Committee on Elon History and Memory. This one most clearly document’s Harper’s involvement.
  • William A. Harper, Excerpts from The Church in the Present Crisis (New York: Revell, 1921). – Harper offers faith and Christian forbearance as a solution for the “race problem.”
  • Dean E. D. Soper, “Student Volunteer Convention, Elon College,” Christian Education, 10, n. 8 (May 1927): 495. – Soper describes an interracial meeting held at Elon, a first of its kind for North Carolina.
  • William A. Harper, Excerpts from Character Building in College (New York: Abingdon Press, 1928). – Harper discusses in glowing terms the interracial fellowship of the event described by Soper, above, and lifts it up as an example of race relations.
  • Excerpts from Annual Catalogue, Franklinton Christian College (1927-28). – Harper was deeply invested in segregated educational opportunities for Black Southerners and served on the Board of Control for Elon’s segregated sister school.

Secondary Sources

  • Gregory P. Downs, “University Men, Social Science, and White Supremacy in North Carolina,” Journal of Southern History, 75, n. 2 (May 2009): 267-304. – The most influential thought leaders in North Carolina during Harper’s formative years,, Downs shows, were deeply committed to pushing the state and nation “toward progress and away from degeneration,” in large part by prompting white supremacy.
  • Michael Dennis, “The Skillful Use of Higher Education to Protect White Supremacy,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education n. 32 (Summer 2001): 115-123. – Dennis explains how white support for a Black educational institution was not necessarily support for racial equality or uplift and, in fact, often represented the opposite.
  • Claude Clegg, “Old Demons of the New South,” in Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning in the New South (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press). – Clegg discusses the horrific phenomenon of lynching in a North Carolina context, tying his discussion to “progressive” educators like Charles Aycock and to the disfranchisement campaign centered around the 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre.
  • Derek H. Alderman, Joshua Inwood, and James A. Tyner, “Jack Johnson versus Jim Crow,” Southeastern Geographer, 58, n. 3 (Fall 2019): 227-249. – The authors explain what Jack Johnson’s success meant to white Southerners and helps explain the fear that Harper cited in his 1910 essay.

In-Class Work

Any of the primary sources individually merits a close reading, though special care should be taken with the News and Observer reading and students should be warned that it contains references to sexual and anti-Black violence. It will also be necessary in discussions about Harper to anticipate that conversations may run to the question of the degree of his complicity in the Jeffries murder. We do not have adequate documentation with which to answer this question, and it may be useful to anticipate this discussion and prevent it from consuming the class. In the most generous construction of events, it appears that Harper helped apprehend someone accused of a crime and then tried to arrange for a same-day trial and execution.

Harper’s Hopes for Black Americans

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, and Critical Thinking

Activity/Discussion Questions: Divide students into groups and assign each group one of the sources (but please pair “Student Volunteer Convention, Elon College” and excerpts from Character Building in College and leave off The Church in the Present Crisis to create an even number).  Ask students to spend a few minutes identifying, on the basis of their document alone, Harper’s hopes for Black Americans.  Then, put the groups in dialogue with one another, in round-robin format.  Are they able to harmonize their interpretations?

Jack Johnson and John Jeffress/Jeffries

Please note that this assignment could scale up to a full-blown paper by requiring students also to engage the sources by Clegg and Alderman et al. If the Clegg chapter is also used, George H. White may be included in the comparison.

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, and Critical Thinking

Activity/Discussion Questions: Have students read two of the most difficult sources, the 1910 piece in the Christian Sun and the 1920 article about the Jeffress lynching. What commonalities do students see in these events? From a white person’s perspective, what did Johnson and Jeffress have in common? What cultural assumptions about Black masculinity were in play?

Change over Time?

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving

Activity/Discussion Questions: Do we have enough data points to understand Harper? Have students read all of the primary sources in advance. The question, either framed as a debate or for low stakes in-class writing, is whether Harper changed over time in his orientation to white supremacy/race relations or whether he remained consistent. Some observers have noted the vitriol of the 1910 essay and Harper’s investment in Black education from the late 1920s and posited positive growth, while others have framed them as part of a pattern of “progressive white supremacy.” Ask students to take a position and to defend it.

 

Take-Home Assignments

White Progressivism

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Research Skills, Broad Base of Knowledge, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving

Assignment: Have students read the Downs and Clegg pieces, as well as the Harper sources.  Depending on the desired scale of the assignment, they may also read sources on the Wilmington Race Massacre (beginning with the essays in Democracy Betrayed) and/or online, text-searchable newspaper articles from the turn of the century featuring Charles Aycock and others. Scholars have often cited the “paradox” of white southern progressivism–all-in for both education and white supremacy. How would you resolve this paradox? What sort of policy positions characterized this position?

Remembering Harper (A and B)

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Research Skills, Broad Base of Knowledge, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving

Assignment:

  • A. Please have students read statements from Duke University and Yale University about the principles for renaming buildings. Based on these statements and on what you know about William Harper, does Harper Hall qualify for renaming?
  • B. Please have students read statements from Duke University and Yale University about the principles for renaming buildings. Are these principles readily transferable from institution to institution? If Elon were to articulate a set of principles, what would you suggest? Please draft a memorandum outlining your principles and rationale.