Exploring the 150-Year History of Freed-Hardeman University
The Great Depression is usually given two beginning dates—October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed, and October 29, 1929, commonly known as Black Tuesday. The crash of the stock market did not particularly impact the Freed-Hardeman community. Like 97 percent of Americans, faculty and administration owned no stock. The Great Depression which centered on bank failures, however, did.
Freed-Hardeman had never been rich; it had very little money saved for the hard times ahead. Like the school, the faculty had little money on hand. Both the school and its employees deposited their savings, such as they were, in the local People Savings Bank. It, like many other banks across the country, experienced a panic. Bank panics happened when a small-town bank failed, word spread and depositors tried to withdraw their funds. The bank, typically operating independent of other banks, was unable to meet the demand and forced to close.
Bank closings also affected FHU’s students and their parents. During the early years of the Depression cash “was practically non-existent.” The college adapted in order to survive. C.P. Roland devised ways for students to pay their bills, varying the means depending upon the student’s circumstances. Some parents signed notes pledging to pay a certain amount at a specified time. Others bartered, bringing food from their farms to the dining hall and even to faculty members. Teachers were paid in goods and food, and they managed to care for their families. Surprisingly, enrollment at FHC remained steady and even increased.
By 1935, the science program had been revived and the school was in need of a science building. John Endsley, a science teacher who joined the faculty during the Depression, supervised the construction of a two-story brick building. Young men provided the labor, working to cover part of the cost of their education.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in 1932, New Deal programs began to affect both Henderson and Freed-Hardeman. In town, the Federal Housing Administration provided loans for new houses to families who earlier had been unable to afford the payment for a new house. At the college, the National Youth Administration (NYA) provided loans to students, providing they worked part-time serving the college and the community. Students worked to enhance the cultural life of the community, presenting an 18th century play and creating a museum open to both college students and local citizens. Others planted a rose garden and built a tennis court.
In one instance, a national emergency utilized the work of students. In 1937, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers flooded and more than 300 persons came to Henderson to escape the flooding. NYA students registered the refugees when they arrived at the cotton compress near the Mobile and Ohio Railroad which served as their temporary housing.
Somehow, the college managed to scrape together funds to make payments on its debt. Despite the hardship, enrollment grew and Freed-Hardeman survived the trying times.
Information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase for $30 plus tax in the FHU Office of Academics, which is located in Loyd 107.