February 17: Tillotson College’s Mary Elizabeth Branch, first Black woman college president in Texas

Mary Elizabeth Branch became the first Black woman to serve as president of a Texas college when she took the reins of Tillotson College in 1930, and she was the only woman to serve as president of Huston-Tillotson University or either of the institutions that preceded it (Sam Huston College and Tillotson College) until current President Collette Pierce Burnette was appointed in 2015.

The daughter of former slaves from Virginia and an alumna and former faculty member at Virginia State College (now University), Branch was one of the most prominent Black woman educators of the 20th century. The year before she arrived at Tillotson College, the all-women’s college had been downgraded to a junior college after suffering declining enrollments and administrative mismanagement three years after converting to a women’s college.

Five years after her arrival, the institution was reorganized into a co-ed four-year institution and its enrollment had grown tremendously, thanks to her fundraising prowess. During her 14 year tenure, Branch took the small women’s junior college from battling to keep its doors open to a thriving institution that had seen the construction of new buildings — including a men’s dorm and a gymnasium — and renovation of existing buildings, library expansion, a doubling of the faculty, and aggressive hiring.

She was a leader of the Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and one of two female members of Texas’ Negro Advisory Board to the National Youth Administration. In 1944 at the age of 63, and while still serving as president of the institution, she helped found the United Negro College Fund.

Branch worked tirelessly to improve the college’s relationship with the community by participating in civic affairs and establishing contacts with faculty at the University of Texas and Samuel Huston College, as well as with public school teachers and administrators in the city. When the first Black students enrolled at the University of Texas more than a decade after her death, they were not welcome to stay on campus, and Huston-Tillotson took them in, allowing them to stay in the HT dorms. In 1935, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the National Youth Administration’s Negro Advisory Board for Texas. She also laid the groundwork for the merger of Sam Huston College and Tillotson College, though she would not live to see the fruits of her labor.

Prior to her appointment at Tillotson College, she served as dean of women at Vashon High School in St. Louis, the nation’s largest school for black girls at the time. At the time of her death, she was the only black female president of a senior college accredited by the SACSS.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com