Georgia State University began its first 100 years as a tiny school of commerce
When Georgia Tech established its School of Commerce in 1913, about half of the 44 enrollees were non-traditional students employed in Atlanta’s businesses. Most attended the evening classes, while regular Tech commerce students went to day classes. In 1914, responding to their enthusiasm and heeding student complaints, Tech moved the evening classes to a rented downtown building on Walton Street to accommodate the working students’ busy and conflicting schedules. It was a significant decision. Enrollment more than doubled. This off-campus constituency grew steadily and became a haven for eligible working youths who could not afford regular college. It was also the nucleus for the urban college that became Georgia State University.
Initially, Tech offered a three-year bachelor of commercial science (B.C.S.) degree followed by two years of approved work in business. A certificate of proficiency went to “irregular” students who did not complete all the courses. All campus collegiate requirements applied to the downtown Evening School. The typical program included commercial law as well as economics, labor problems, banking, cost accounting and finance. In 1915, Tech graduated its first commerce class, all seven carrying full-time jobs. A year later, Tech switched to a four-year degree program, the bachelor of science degree in commerce (B.S.C.), which had a more demanding curriculum, including biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, machine shop and a foreign language. This change coincided with the founding of the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business. Downtown Evening School students could receive the four-year degree only by taking additional daytime courses on the Tech campus.
Women and the War
Like all educational institutions, the Evening School and Tech felt the influence of World War I. But as students and faculty departed for war and enrollments declined, the Evening School remained stable primarily because of the concurrent gender upheaval. Dean Wayne Kell opened the Evening School to women in 1917, swelling enrollment by 40 percent despite the declining male population. About 30 women made up more than 26 percent of the freshman class. By 1918, the enrollment outgrew the Walton Street building. The Evening School moved to a central location at the Peachtree Arcade, just in time for a 1919 explosion in the student body. It doubled to 310 compared to 190 enrolled on Tech’s campus. The Evening School’s first woman student, Annie Teitelbaum Wise, also graduated that year. During the day, the 55-year-old Wise was principal of Commercial High.
Growth continued in the 1920s as the Evening School established deeper roots. Enrollment surpassed 700 by the 1930s, twice requiring moves to new locations before a permanent structure was acquired in 1931. Tech’s acceptance as the 16th member of the prestigious American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business in 1921 surely encouraged Dean John Watters to seek, unsuccessfully, the four-year degree for evening students. Watters’ successor, Director Frederick Wenn, set up a recruitment network among local school superintendents for “bright, energetic boys,” and he found jobs for them in local businesses.
George M. Sparks, a non-academic newspaper and public relations man, replaced Wenn in 1928 and gradually extended the school’s community outreach to the entire state. He took an interest in students and sponsored their publications and numerous organizations. Sparks’ popularity, business acumen and political instincts prepared him well for the eco-nomic hard times that arrived at the end of the 1920s.
Sparks’ first major task after the 1929 stock market crash was to move the school out of its decrepit quarters at 100 Forsyth Street. Plagued by miserly state support, Tech, by early 1930, felt the financial strain and warned against any future deficits. Yet the state auditor that June found the downtown Evening School profitable, and Sparks began looking for a permanent home. Two Atlanta businessmen found a 30-year-old former orphanage, Sheltering Arms, on Walton Street. Physically, it fit the bill, and they purchased it.
Even as the renovation continued, Atlanta’s economy weakened by 1930, but the school’s finances remained sound. The school’s wellbeing also depended upon the Atlanta community. A fundraising drive generated publicity and garnered support among business leaders, the Walton Street acquisition planted deeper roots and praise came from local higher education leaders.
On Solid Ground
The Evening School’s fortunes began changing in 1932 after the legislature created the University System of Georgia to save money and streamline higher education. Advice on organizing the new system was solicited from the General Education Board, which recommended that a study be undertaken by a group of educational experts under George Works from the University of Chicago. Works’ report called for the retrenchment and consolidation of the system. The Evening School, newly labeled the University System of Georgia Evening School, was removed from Tech’s supervision and went directly to the new chancellor’s office under an Adult Education Center. Tech’s commerce school was transferred to the University of Georgia and Georgia’s tiny engineering program went to Tech.
Sparks had foreseen that the Works group would free the Evening School from Tech’s control. Ever ambitious, he expanded the Evening School into a state college. Despite serious money shortages, Sparks planned curriculum and graduate work, and increased the teaching staff. By fall 1933 he was enrolling students in a new four-year B.S.C. degree, previously given only at Tech, and offering master’s degree courses. He told the Atlanta Constitution to expect the largest enrollment in the school’s history. Within three years this bold venture was halted over opposition from the Southern Association of Colleges.
The Evening School, still attached to the chancellor’s office and unaccredited until 1952, survived despite determined opposition. Subsequently, it became Georgia State College of Business Administration in 1955, Georgia State College in 1962 and Georgia State University in 1969.
Merl Reed is professor emeritus of history and author of “Educating The New Urban South: Atlanta and the Rise of Georgia State University, 1913-1969.”