Benjamin Franklin Riley, 1888-1893
Benjamin Franklin Riley served during one of the many precarious periods in Samford's history. When Howard College relocated to the East Lake community of Birmingham in 1887 it left behind its president and several trustees, not to mention the good will of some Alabama Baptists. Worst of all, the trustees discovered that an important section of the new campus site was not included in the donation of the East Lake Land Company, so they immediately had to purchase that additional property. Also, in spite of the land company's grand dreams, there was little in the rural area surrounding the new campus apart from Ruhama Baptist Church, which would serve as the spiritual home of the college through the 1950s, and the old school building of the defunct Ruhama Academy.
The economic bubble that led Howard College to Birmingham had burst and the school found itself once again in dire financial straits. Visions of a rich endowment and grand new facilities faded as the trustees realized the college's two temporary buildings would have to serve longer than expected. One trustee, a supporter of the relocation, proclaimed, "Well, if I had known that we were not to have buildings, I should never have voted for removal."
Historian Mitchell Bennett Garrett paints a vivid and unflattering picture of the campus in those early years in East Lake.
At the college, the scene was anything but inviting. Two wooden buildings of hasty construction stood wide apart in a growth of old field pines. The surroundings were uncleared of underbrush, and the trees which had been felled more than a year before to make room for the buildings were still lying about the grounds. The remnants of the library were scattered and torn over the floor of an outhouse; pictures and broken furniture were piled in the corners of the limited hallways; the furniture of all the departments was old and rickety, the bedding inferior and worn.
Howard's trustees had the unenviable task of persuading someone to preside over that uninspiring scene. Three nominees declined the presidency before B. F. Riley agreed to lead the college in September 1888.
Riley, the son of a Pineville farmer, was Samford's first native Alabamian president. The graduate of Erskine College, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Crozer Theological Seminary was a well-known pastor, editor of the Alabama Baptist newspaper and author of many books on Alabama history. After accepting the presidency, he acted quickly to stabilize and expand the college, refurbishing the old Ruhama Academy building, purchasing milk cows and planting a garden to supply the campus dining hall. He emphasized the moral as well as the academic and martial education offered by the college but, not surprisingly, seems to have focused most of his attention on staving-off financial catastrophe.
By 1889 college officials had grown so tired of Birmingham's failure to provide all it had promised that they openly investigated abandoning East Lake. Howard's financial outlook was so grim during this period that one financial agent resigned and his replacement remarked, "There are 75 men in this city who say they will give, but they all want to be the last, and how to make the whole 75 last is a mathematical problematical problem I have been unable to solve, after days and days of thinking."
In spite of the hard times, the college pressed ahead on construction of a brick multipurpose building. The new building, completed in 1891 and later known as "Old Main," was the architectural centerpiece of the new campus. New dormitories and other improvements followed soon after, but Howard's rural setting remained less than impressive. J. J. Finklea accompanied his son to college in 1891, and as the pair approached the campus on foot the father asked, "My boy, how much farther? Are we not about at the place?" "Yes, Papa," his son replied, "this is the place." Finklea considered the tangle of pines and brush before him and said, "but I didn’t know, my boy, that you were camped here in the woods."
A nationwide economic depression reduced Howard's enrollment in 1892 and Riley traveled around the state at his own expense to recruit students. Unfortunately, many of those he recruited required extra time in paying tuition, forcing the college to borrow funds for the year. Riley noted midway through the 1892-93 session that although the college had not succumbed to despair, "there has been an appreciation of an ever-increasing weight of responsibility, the appreciation of a burden growing heavier and heavier, and one which, in the nature of the case, is growing still more heavy as the session advances."
Riley held out hope that the people of Birmingham would help the college in its time of greatest need, especially since he calculated that Howard had contributed at least $60,000 to the growth of the city since the college's arrival in East Lake. But by early1893 a fundraising campaign in the city had netted only $500 of the $2,000 needed to continue operating the college. "The sources from which I have derived means to tide the college over the 'trying' periods of the past five years have now been exhausted," Riley lamented.
Riley himself seems to have been exhausted by the financial struggle. He proposed hiring a full-time field agent to represent the college in securing both students and endowment funds. Alternately, he said, the college could call on Baptist women in the state to raise money to build tenant houses on the campus. He thought the latter project could provide rent and a pool of prospective students as well as increase the value of campus property and harness the considerable influence of Baptist women. The Trustees did eventually follow Riley's advice about the full-time field agent, but by that time Riley had already moved on. He resigned at the end of the 1892-93 session in order to accept a position as professor of English literature at the University of Georgia.
In spite of the financial frustrations of this period and thanks to Riley's extensive recruiting efforts, the class of 1893 was the largest in the college's history. Howard's next president would make history as well, but with the addition of only five students.