Our History

“If the son shall make you free, then ye shall be free indeed.”

- Lincoln University's Motto

Learn. Liberate. Lead.

Since its founding more than 165 years ago, those three words have defined our mission at Lincoln University. We're dedicated to empowering our students—empowering you—with the knowledge, confidence, and connections to achieve success and rise to the top.

Those words also define us as we move towards the future. But even as we look ahead, it's important to look back and remember where we came from, and how that informs our mission and our approach today.

A University's Beginnings

Originally established as The Ashmun Institute, Lincoln University received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on April 29, 1854, making it the nation's first degree-granting Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

"The first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent,” described Horace Mann Bond (class of 1923), Lincoln’s first African American president, in his book, Education for Freedom.

DickyJM.jpgBefore that, though, the school was the dream of its founders, John Miller Dickey and his wife Sarah Emlen Cresson. She'd inherited a long tradition of service and philanthropy through the Society of Friends in Philadelphia, while the importance of education was a major value Dickey's family. His maternal grandfather was a marble merchant in Philadelphia who made contributions to the education of African-Americans in that city as early as 1794, and his father was a minister of the Oxford Presbyterian Church.

After serving as a missionary and preaching to the slaves in Georgia, John Miller Dickey became pastor of that same church in Oxford, Pennsylvania, in 1832. He was active in the American Colonization Society, and in 1851, he took part in the court actions leading to the freeing of a young African-American girl who had been abducted from southern Chester County by slave raiders from Maryland. At the same time, having been unsuccessful in his efforts to gain college admission to even the most liberal of schools for a young freedman named James Amos, Dickey himself prepared the young man for the ministry.

In October 1853, the Presbytery of New Castle approved Dickey’s plan for the establishment of “an institution to be called Ashmun Institute, for the scientific, classical and theological education of colored youth of the male sex.”

An Expanding Mission and Growing Influence

On April 4, 1866, the institution was re-named Lincoln University in honor of President Abraham Lincoln. Dickey took the opportunity to propose that the school expand into a full-fledged university and to enroll students of “every clime and complexion.” Law, medical, pedagogical, and theological schools were planned in addition to the College of Liberal Arts. White students were encouraged to enroll and two graduated in the first baccalaureate class of six men in 1868.

During its early years, Lincoln was known colloquially as ‘the Black Princeton’ due to its Princeton University-educated founder and early faculty, rigorous classical curriculum, ties to the Presbyterian Church, and its similarities in colors and mascots (Princeton’s colors were orange & black, while Lincoln’s were orange & blue; Princeton’s mascot was a tiger, and Lincoln’s mascot was a lion).

The university celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1953 by amending its charter to permit the granting of degrees to women. In 1972, it formally associated with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a state-related, coeducational university. Lincoln is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and offers academic programs in undergraduate study in the arts and sciences as well as graduate programs in human services, reading, education, mathematics, and administration.

A Leader in Excellence

Since our founding distinction of being the first degree-granting HBCU in the country, our alumni have taken the lead on shaping our society and garnered more than 50 international and national "firsts." In fact, during our first 100 years, Lincoln graduated approximately 20 percent of the African American physicians and more than 10 percent of the African American attorneys in the nation. Our alumni have led more than 35 colleges and universities and scores of prominent churches. They also include U.S. ambassadors; mission chiefs; federal, state, and municipal judges; mayors; and city managers.

Christian Fleetwood, an 1860 graduate, was the first African American Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in 1865. The Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes graduated from Lincoln in 1929. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice graduated just a year later, in 1930. The legendary and influential soul and jazz poet, musician, and author Gil-Scott-Heron attended Lincoln in the late 1960s. More recently, Lincoln has been alma mater to Comedian Will “Spank” Horton, who attended in the late 90s; Jalaal Hayes, Delaware State University's youngest doctoral graduate and a Lincoln grad in 2011, and Brittney Waters, from the class of 2013, now a professional women’s basketball player for the Ulster Rockets in Ireland.

Lincoln University's current president, Brenda A. Allen, graduated from Lincoln in 1981.

Other notable alumni include: Melvin B. Tolson ’24, an educator and one of the most significant African American modernist poets; Hildrus A. Poindexter ’24, the first African American to earn both an M.D. (1929, Harvard University) and a Ph.D. (1932, Columbia University) as well as also the first African American internationally-recognized authority on tropical diseases; Rev. James Robinson ’35, founder of Crossroads Africa, which served as the model for the Peace Corps; Roscoe Lee Browne ’46, author and widely acclaimed actor of stage and screen; Lawrence (Larry) Neal ’61, one of the most influential scholars, authors and philosophers of The Black Arts Movement; Lillian Fishburne, ’71, the first African American female U.S. Navy Rear Admiral; Jacqueline F. Allen ’74, administrative judge of the trial division of the Common Pleas Court, Philadelphia; Sheila Oliver '74, the first African American woman elected Assembly Speaker in the New Jersey General Assembly and the first African American woman elected Lt. Governor of New Jersey; Philip Banks ’84, former New York City Police Chief; Fred Thomas, Jr. ’91, actor, director and three-time NAACP award-winning playwright; and Dr. E. Reggie Smith III ’92, the first African American president and then Chairman of the Board of Directors of The United States Distance Learning Association in 2009 and 2010.

Our influence has also extended beyond the United States. Many of Lincoln’s international graduates have become outstanding leaders in their countries, including Nnamdi Azikiwe ’30, the first president of Nigeria; Kwame Nkrumah ’39, the first president of Ghana; Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo, Ph.D., ’81, the first Black dean of the University of Pretoria after the dismantling of Apartheid, and his wife, Renosi Mokate ’81, former executive director of The World Bank Group as well as former CEO of the South Africa Energy Fund, Tjama Tjivikua, Ph.D.,’83, the first rector of the Polytechnic of Namibia in Windhoek and Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila ’94, the first female Prime Minister of Namibia.

A Proud History and a Bright Future

Today, Lincoln's proud history informs our commitment to being a leading liberal arts school in our state and nation. Following the philosophy of our founders and the many students who passed through our halls, we take pride in challenging but supporting our students to be the best they can be and achieving more than they dreamed.

Lincoln graduates continue to make names for themselves in the sciences, business, religion, law enforcement, and the creative and entertainment fields as writers, directors, comedians, and film executives.

The only question left is: where will your Lincoln University education take you?

Apply now!