William A. Harper: Violence, Segregation and Progressivism.


A photo of the residence hall bearing William A. Harper’s name.

Colonnades Residence Halls are located in between Koury Business Center and Danieley Neighborhood. When completed in 2011, the complex included five residence halls and a dining hall.  The residence halls were named for members of the Elon community; Story, Moffitt, Kivette, Staley, and Harper Halls. In 2020, after President Book learned about Harper's 1910 Christian Sun article promoting an Elon education as a means of maintaining racial supremacy over Blacks, she shared the information and article with the board of trustees and they collectively agreed to immediately remove Harper's name from the residence hall.  


Portrait of William A. Harper, Elon's fourth president (1911-1931).

Elon’s fourth president, William A. Harper (1911–31), embodied the paradoxes of White Southern progressivism in the early years of the 20th century. White Southern progressives believed in the power of education and expertise to bring about moral, political and economic progress for all, though they insisted that White supremacy was an essential characteristic of a well-ordered society.

In 1910, as dean of Elon College, Harper took the opportunity occasioned by Jack Johnson’s famous victory as World Heavyweight Champion to argue for the role an Elon education could play in the maintenance of White supremacy. Citing widespread alarm among White Americans after Johnson trounced Jim Jeffries, “The Great White Hope,” Harper assured readers of The Christian Sun, “We have no fears for white supremacy from the outcome of this conflict of brawn. ... But we do have fears for white supremacy for another and better reason,” he warned. “... The history of the world shows that education is essential to race leadership and the negroes are willing to sacrifice for it more than are our whites.” As the solution to the specter of racial equality, Harper urged White parents to send their sons and daughters to Elon College. In closing, he invited readers to write him directly “for particulars and terms according to which [Elon] undertakes to foster individual and racial supremacy.”


Formal groundbreaking for Alamance building took place on March 21, 1923. From left to right are three unidentified women, Mrs. W.A. Harper, President W.A. Harper, Uncle James W. Wellons holding the shovel, and other dignitaries for the event.

A decade later, in 1920, Harper was president of the college and played a different role when he led a posse that arrested John Jeffress [or Jeffries], a Black man passing through the county, on suspicion of rape. The Raleigh News & Observer reported on August 26 that “a posse of 25 citizens, headed by President W. A. Harper, of Elon college” led the hunt for Jeffress after hearing accusations against him. The paper reported that Harper then adjourned to the courtroom and agreed to serve as a witness in a hastily assembled same-day capital trial. The trial never happened, however, for a second gang of armed White men seized Jeffress from custody and murdered him.

The paradoxes within Harper’s vision of a well ordered society remained on display throughout the 1920s. On the one hand, he called on several occasions for an end to racial conflict and supported educational opportunities for Black Southerners. On the other, he expected educational institutions to be segregated and to assimilate Black
people into subservient stations in American life. In his 1921 book, “The Church in the Present Crisis,” Harper revealed how he harmonized these two impulses into a formula for ending “racial hatred.” “Suppose,” he wrote, “that the White man should regard his coloured neighbor as a brother and determine to help him to larger life, the coloured man in turn regarding his White neighbour as a friend and sympathetic counsellor, what would
be the result?”


William A. Harper, “White Supremacy Endangered,” Christian Sun (July 13, 1910). 

“Judge Allen Pleads for Sanctity of Law,” Raleigh News and Observer (August 26, 1920). 

William A. Harper, Excerpts from The Church in the Present Crisis (New York: Revell, 1921). 

William A. Harper, Excerpts from Character Building in College (New York: Abingdon Press, 1928).

Committee on History and Memory report (pgs. 15-18).

Teaching and Anti-Black Racism from Elon's History, William A. Harper.

Colonnades Residence Halls