In 1822, the Athens Female Academy was established on land donated by Alabama Supreme Court Judge John McKinley. The school that was to become Athens State University began as a four-room schoolhouse. The mission of the academy was to provide an education for the girls and young ladies of Alabama on the elementary, secondary, and collegiate levels. In 1842, the trustees of the Athens Female Academy planned to become affiliated with the Methodist Church in order to attract students from a broader geographical area. In 1843, the Alabama legislature ratified the name change to Athens Female Institute of the Tennessee Annual Conference. The institution’s first president was Richard Henderson. The first building on campus, Founders Hall, was constructed with funds donated by local residents. The student body gradually increased from eighty to over two hundred students by the 1850s. Jane Hamilton Childs, the former head of the Huntsville Female College, became president of the Athens Female Institute in 1858. Under its new name—the Athens Collegiate Institute—the school kept its doors open through the Civil War. By the time Childs retired in 1869, the institute had once again adopted the policy of serving only those girls whose families could afford the tuition. In 1870, the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church assumed control of the school, renaming it the North Alabama Female College. The Alabama legislature changed the name to the Athens Female Institute in 1872 and to Athens Female College in 1889. Financial problems plagued the school through the turn of the century.
The college’s fortunes began to improve in the twentieth century. Mary Norman Moore became president in 1904. Under her leadership, the school discontinued elementary education. It received accreditation from the Southern Association and Schools in 1911. That same year, concert pianist Kat McCandless was hired to build the music program. In 1913, the Methodist Conference raised the school to Class A status, which carried with it a minimum endowment of $100,000. The school was renamed Athens College for Women in 1915. Moore stepped down as president in 1916; she returned in 1925 following the death of her husband. She retired in 1930 as the only person to have served two terms as president. Moore’s replacement, Eugene R. Naylor, was the first male academic to be ap- pointed president. In one of his first acts as president, he made the drastic move to increase enrollment by admitting male students. Therefore, the name was changed to Athens College in 1939. Naylor then set about improving the quality of the school’s programs. After his retirement in 1949, succeeding presidents strove to continue upgrading the curriculum.
When Sidney E. Sandridge was appointed president in 1970, the school was experiencing a funding crisis. After the state of Alabama took control of the school in 1975, the legislature changed the name to Athens State College. In addition, the school became an upper-division two-year college within the state’s community college system. Calhoun Community College president James Chastain replaced Sandridge as president in 1981. Nine years later, he was replaced by Jerry F. Bartlett, who brought distance-learning technology to the school. In 1998, the school was renamed Athens State University.
Today, students attending Athens State University can choose from over forty undergraduate majors. Intercollegiate sports were discontinued in the 2003-4 academic year, but other extracurricular activities are offered, such as more than thirty-five clubs. Students also entertain themselves by passing down the univer- sity’s ghost stories.
Founders Hall is the oldest and most legendary of all the buildings on campus. Sandra Cook, who works in the President’s Office, told me, “The whole community joined in to build Founders Hall in 1822 because they wanted a place where their girls could grow to be Southern belles.” One of the best known of the building’s legends concerns its columns. “The columns in the front of it are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because at that time, it was a religious school and was under the auspices of the Methodist Church until 1975. One of the columns supposedly has a keg of whiskey in it. The story goes that the brick mason who was working there liked to have a little nip now and then. One day, the supervisor came by, so he tossed the keg of whiskey in the column, and it’s still there.” Like a number of other Southern heroines who are reputed to have stood up to the Yankees, Madame Jane Hamilton Childs, the headmistress, is said to have used her wits to save Founders Hall. The story goes that Gen. Ivan Turchaninov, who was a Rus- sian on the side of the Yankee troops who occupied Athens, had come to burn and destroy Founders Hall. Madame Childs marched out on the lawn and from the folds of her long black skirt, she took a note, supposedly from Abraham Lincoln. After that, the soldiers left. “We’ve not found the note,” Cook said. “It may be stuck away in the archives somewhere.”
Founders Hall’s most popular stories these days are its ghost stories. Most of the sightings in the building center around a young woman who sneaked out of Founders Hall after the Civil War with her girlfriends to meet their boyfriends. As the girls were making their way down the staircase in the dim light generated by the candles they were holding, a sudden gust of wind ignited the long hair of one of the students. She screamed and tumbled down the stairs. She died a short while later. The ghost of the unfortunate young lady is credited with most of the para- normal activity inside Founders Hall. Students have heard phantom footsteps, clicking sounds, and squeaking doors. Cold spots have popped up throughout the building. Lights turn off and on by themselves. Students have also felt puffs of cold air and smelled smoke. The apparition of a female figure has been seen standing at the building’s windows. Sandra Cook said that according to two professors, work- ing after hours inside Founders Hall is risky. “One professor was here late one night when he heard the jingling of keys outside his office. When he opened the door, he saw something like a fog standing there. Another professor who came to the college to find a job was staying here overnight when he heard footsteps and the rustling of chains. He left the premises and never came back.”
Brown Hall is a much smaller building than Founders Hall, but it is also asso- ciated with a courageous woman’s heroic stand. Built in 1912, Brown Hall is named after Florence Brown, who was secretary to the president in the early 1900s. In 1909, the school was beset by a typhoid epidemic. It closed, and all of the students left except for four young ladies who were unable to return home. Knowing that the girls required medical attention, Florence stayed behind and tended to their needs. All four young women—and Florence Brown—died in the epidemic.
Today, Brown Hall is used for administrative offices. In the past it was used for continuing-education classes. “One of the persons who taught art classes in that building told us after we moved in, ‘Don’t ever stay too late because strange things happen here,’” Cook said. “Then he gave us some of the details. For example, he said if he had a night class and laid something down—he knew exactly where it was—the next day it might be moved or in another room. On one occasion, it was kind of a chain reaction. He was in the room late at night, and something started happening. It just sort of went around the entire room. Pictures fell, someone knocked on a trashcan—sort of a domino effect, I guess.” Other paranormal events range from portraits taking on an evil appearance to microwaves and computers unplugging themselves.
Athens State University’s most famous ghost is the spirit of a young opera singer named Abigail Burns. The story goes that she performed in the auditorium at McCandless Hall shortly after the building was dedicated in 1914. After her per- formance, which was greeted by enthusiastic applause, Abigail was holding a bou- quet of roses when she vowed to return some day. As dark clouds rolled in, Abigail climbed into her carriage and rode out of town. As her carriage crossed a bridge over a gorge, lightning flashed across the sky, causing the horse to bolt. The car- riage careened off the bridge to the rocks below, killing Abigail and her driver. Generations of students claim to have seen the apparition of Abigail Burns stand- ing in one of the third-floor windows of McCandless Hall. She is usually described as a blonde woman wearing a long, white gown and holding a bouquet of roses. Sometimes, her ghost is bathed in an eerie light. Some students even claim to have smelled the flowers. In 1997, Mark Dunn, a professor at Athens State University, re- searched the legend. He discovered that an operatic performance was held at McCandless Hall in 1914, but he could not find any of Abigail Burns’ death records. The absence of historical fact has not discouraged students from telling the story of Abigail. “The stories are not told as much now as they were in the sixties and seventies,” Cook said, “but they are told in dormitories in close-knit groups. We have had people come from Birmingham during Halloween to catch a glimpse of her.”
In 2013, local television station WAFF Channel 48 teamed up with Syfy’s Deep South Paranormal to investigate the reports of ghostly activity at Athens State Univ- ersity. At Brown Hall, the investigators tried to communicate with the resident ghosts by using a spirit box, which allows spirits to speak through the white noise. When one member of the group, Jon Hodges, asked the name of the city the in- vestigators were in, the box said, “Athens.” The investigators then moved to Founders Hall. On the third floor, group member Keith Ramsey asked any resident ghost for permission to play music. A WAFF camera captured a voice saying, “O.K.” The paranormal activity escalated when the investigators placed a flashlight on the floor in different parts of the third floor and began asking questions. The flashlight turned on three times in a span of ten minutes. The next day, WAFF re- porter Nick Lough could not say for certain that the buildings he stayed in were haunted, but he admitted to having had several personal experiences that he could not explain away.
Haunted Alabama written by Alan Brown – Copyright © 2021 by Alan Brown