William Jasper Hale was born in Marion County, Tennessee, on
September 26, 1874. The oldest child in a poor family of four boys and
two girls, young Hale went to work at an early age. During his school days,
he held several jobs in various East Tennessee towns. Hale found substantial
employment in Dayton and earned enough money to enroll at biracial Maryville
College. The young man had a passion for reading and mathematics. After
attending Maryville College for several terms, he secured teaching positions
in Coulterville and Retro. He became principal of St. Elmo Grammar School
in a suburb of Chattanooga. Later, he became principal of Chattanooga's
East First Street Grammar School.
Hale's opportunity for prominence came in 1909, when the General Assembly authorized a Negro state normal school. He led the effort to raise $71,000 in pledges to get the school located in Chattanooga. However, Nashville's black community raised nearly $100,000 and secured the school for Davidson County. Despite the change in location, Hale became the state normal school's principal because state Superintendent of Schools R. J. Jones came from Chattanooga and knew William J. Hale.
Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School opened on June 19, 1912, with an enrollment of 247 students. Hale hand-picked the first faculty members from graduates of Atlanta, Fisk, and Howard universities. After visiting other black institutions where industrial and agricultural training took place, Hale quickly adopted a pre-collegiate curriculum for the school. He secretly created a black history course and called it Industrial Education "with emphasis on Negro problems." The State of Tennessee received federal Morrill Land Grant Funds for State Normal and the University of Tennessee, but the white officials sent most of the money to the University of Tennessee.
Although the state officials committed fiscal discrimination against the black school, Hale managed to increase enrollments and elevate the curriculum to collegiate status by 1922. To secure more state funds, he sent state officials Christmas turkeys from the school's farm. He transported state legislators to the campus, where they were dined, served, and entertained by faculty members and students. During these visits, the students appeared in uniforms, worked on the farm, and did other manual labor, so the whites perceived that "blacks were being educated according to southern expectations." During 1927-28, three new buildings were completed, library holdings improved, faculty fellowships for advanced training established, and evening courses and extension work added. By 1935, Hale held dedication ceremonies for six more buildings and began discussion of a graduate program.
Hale married his secretary, a local girl named Hattie Hodgkins, who was a graduate of Fisk University. Their three children were graduated from A & I College with distinction: William Jasper, Jr. (1931), Gwendolyn Claire (1939), and Edward Harned (1941).
In 1927, the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools elected Hale to its presidency. He served on the board of Citizens Bank, and in 1929 he presided over the State Interracial Commission. In 1930, Hale became the first Tennessean to receive the Harmon Foundation's Gold Award for outstanding achievement in education. He chaired the Community Chest drive for blacks (1931). He also received honorary Doctor of Law degrees from Wilberforce University and Howard University (1936 and 1939, respectively). Dr. Hale became the Negro state director for U. S. Savings Stamps and Bonds during the early part of World War Two and raised over forty thousand dollars.
When Tennessee A & I State College celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, the institution was valued at $3,000,000. Hale successfully gained accreditation for the school in 1933. His graduates earned advanced degrees from America's prestigious colleges and universities, including Columbia, Ohio State, Cornell, and Iowa State. He retired in 1943, after struggling for thirty-one years to build and expand a creditable institution of learning for African Americans.
Billie P. Pursley