November 2, 2020 The Daily News Journal, Susan Harber
Union University was a dynamic and innovative college thriving in Murfreesboro in the mid-19th century. No one could foretell the affliction to come through the fate of the Civil War and World War II. The university began under the direction of the Baptist faith of Middle Tennessee, opening in 1841 after raising an endowment and offering preparatory classes. By 1847, college courses were offered. A subscription of $25,000 was designated by the Board of Trustees to begin work on a new building with a cornerstone being laid in June 1849 for the Murfreesboro campus. The building was a brick structure (80 x 110 feet) and three stories high. By 1853, Union had 145 college students and 93 preparatory students and was growing into a sizeable campus.
On campus, Phi Gamma Delta began a charter on February 5, 1851 as a celebrated fraternity. In 1860, their minutes read ‘we are prospering and favorable’ only to be grounded by the Civil War. By 1873, the Delta Chapter was reinstated. For two years, the main publication on campus was “The Classic Union” issued twice a month. Each issue showcased 30 pages and was printed at the Rutherford Telegraph on the square.
Reverend Joseph Eaton was the first president in 1848 and a beloved teacher in a flourishing era for the college. He was the former manager of the acclaimed Bradley Academy. He willingly refused a salary to subsidize the school. In 1856, a president’s home (two-story brick) was constructed on the east campus for Joseph Eaton and wife Esther. On January 12, 1859, Eaton died at age 47 years old; and the community was shocked and dismayed. The school was then named Eaton College in his honor. He was the strong personage of the theology school and so respected in the community. Eaton had a magnificent tribute at his memorial and was buried in a tomb on the university grounds. His epitaph referred to him as a ‘prince.’ Eaton’s grave was later relocated to City Cemetery in Murfreesboro.
Reverend James Madison Pendelton was Eaton’s successor and managed the school until 1861, at which time Union closed during the Civil War. The campus was utilized as a hospital by both the Northern and Southern troops and was badly damaged. Pendleton supported emancipation instead of abolition and was controversial during this era of war. He was native to Hopkinsville, Kentucky and lived by the Oaklands home in Murfreesboro. Pendleton never emotionally recovered from the death of his son John, who died in the war. Several students were casualties in this heart-wrenching chapter of history.
The university was vandalized beyond repair by the Union soldiers. The fabulous collection of collegiate books was sent North. Windows, doors, and woodwork were converted to firewood. During this time, the campus was utilized as a refuge for former slaves.
The university reopened in 1868 to a small enrollment after minimum renovation. Yet, the school closed in 1873, with poor economic means and an epidemic of cholera. Southwestern Baptist opened their doors on this site in September 1874 to preparatory students and formed a charter in June 1875. By October of same year, the university doors were shut tight as a base of operations and moved to Jackson, Tennessee.
In a bold move, the Trustees changed the name back to Union University in sentiment of the original institution and grand faculty, along with the legacy of Dr. Eaton. In same year of 1907, Dr. Thomas Treadwill Eaton, a trustee and son of Dr. Joseph Eaton, bequeathed Union his 6,000-volume library. Dr. Thomas Eaton was a former professor on the Murfreesboro campus. After continued decay of the building, Union University was demolished. Tennessee College for Women, also affiliated with the Baptist Church, was established at this site in 1907 and remained intact until 1946, after merging with Cumberland University in Lebanon.
After World War II, the Tennessee College for Women lay in near ruins. Yet, there was a need for a new high school. The original Murfreesboro high school, built in 1917 on Maple Street, had burned in 1944; and an immediate location for a school was paramount. Thus, the Tennessee College for Women was used for this purpose. Central High was rebuilt on the site of the women’s college and construction completed in 1950. This structure heralded some of the best Murfreesboro luminaries of a lifetime, including historians Homer Pittard and Dr. E.C. Tolbert, as well as Principal Baxter Hobgood. At the time, the third floor of this school was utilized for barracks for returning soldiers from World War II.
The original site of Union University transitioned as a multi-purpose facility to serve educational needs to numerous students over 100 years. The school was a jewel and provided an incredibly strong education to a growing and prospering county.