When 51 young men and women arrived in Wadley on Sept. 12, 1923, to start classes at a brand-new Bible college, they found a single partially constructed building on a red clay hill. But they also found a five-member faculty and a town full of citizens ready and willing to create a learning community that would last for a century.
Those students represented the first class of Bethlehem College, a private school chartered on June 2, 1922, by the Southern Convention of Christian Churches and charged with providing two years of affordable coeducational training to residents of Randolph and surrounding counties.
Today, that little school is known as Southern Union State Community College and though it is greatly changed – now with three campuses and a faculty of more than 200 educators serving more than 4,000 students – its commitment to community education remains the same.
The story of Southern Union’s century of service began after town leaders in Wadley successfully persuaded Christian church leaders to locate their newest rural college in the little town. One of the reasons Wadley was chosen was the support exhibited by the community. Not only did local citizens help raise $22,000 to launch the college, a cashier at the Bank of Wadley named John Hodge donated 44 acres of land for the campus.
Within a few years of opening, the school had changed its name to Southern Union College and was experiencing a steady growth in enrollment. But it struggled financially, even closing its doors for a short time in 1933 when it faced bankruptcy. But the school soon reopened with help from citizens, some who mortgaged their farms to pay the school’s debt.
That sense of community got the school through the Great Depression, during which school leaders developed work-study programs and accepted food, farm animals and supplies in exchange for tuition. All the while, students received an exemplary education from the college faculty, some who hailed from Ivy League colleges or prestigious art and music schools.
Today, Southern Union alumni continue to find success in the world and often credit the school’s sense of community for their success.
Commitment to community
Louise James Cox, of LaFayette, experienced that community commitment firsthand. “I’ve been involved with Southern Union since I was a child because my mother and grandmother were Congregational Christians,” Cox said. She recalls attending fall Harvest Days when all the Congregational Christian churches (there were more than 30 in the Wadley area at the time) took food to the college to stock the school pantry. But Cox, a 1964 SUSCC graduate, also credits Southern Union leaders for encouraging her to come back to school at the age of 29, then a few years later hiring her to teach at the college for another 25 years.
“To me, that place is sacred,” she said. “When I walk over there, I feel the love of so many people that made that little school and made it affordable for people in this area that couldn’t have gone to school.”
Desmond Nunn, a 2012 graduate, echoes Cox’s sentiment. He came to Southern Union unsure about his career path. With help from the performing arts faculty, Nunn discovered his innate talent as a dancer and singer. He is now traveling the country as a principal in the national tour of “Hamilton: The Musical.”
“Southern Union was the launching pad,” he said. “If I had dreams, Southern Union was the rocket. I would never have gotten to space without this place.”
It is that sense of community and commitment that Southern Union’s current leaders plan to take forward.
“Community is what drives and inspires us,” said President Todd Shackett. “We are committed to continuing that partnership to help make our communities stronger through education, and we look forward to the next 100 years of growing and advancing together.”
Southern Union will be celebrated on Oct. 15 on the Wadley campus and the public is invited. The free event features food, games and alumni reunions and performances. To learn more, visit Southern Union’s Facebook page or other social media feeds or go to www.suscc.edu.
This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of Alabama Living magazine.