SFA Story: The History of Stephen F. Austin State University

The Founding Years

Origins of the University

In looking back on the origins of SFA, the observer must keep the phrase "the founding years" in mind, literally and figuratively. The number "seventy-five" needs explanation. The year 1923 is only one of the founding dates of Stephen F. Austin State University. In her book, The Golden Years, Bettye H. Craddock somewhat avoids the nomenclature and chronological issues involved by narrating the course of events in a chapter entitled, "In The Beginning." Confusion still exists in the current Bulletin of the university which states SFASU was "established as a teachers college in 1921."

"The Founding Years"

The founding years of SFA are 1917, 1921, and 1923-24. Referenced from the year it was chartered, SFA is entering its 81st year. For instance, when Texas Tech University this past academic year celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary, it celebrated from the year it was chartered, 1922. By the end of 1917, SFA had a charter. The more practical dates, the date the appropriation bill for funding was signed in 1921 and the date the school opened in 1923, will appear in the Heritage Series as separate segments. The opening year of 1923, which is being targeted in the celebrations in 1998, was in itself a most difficult and trying year. Although classes began on September 18, 1923, in fact, there was no official opening of the campus until late spring of 1924, when the State Board of Regents came to Nacgodoches to dedicate the Austin Building.

1917, The Charter Year

In the creation of law, there are two distinct types of legislation. Laws that create entities are called authorization bills, or in historical terminology, charters. For instance, the Republic of Texas gave a charter to Nacogdoches University in 1845. No money. In modern times, an omnibus law includes both charter and funding. In 1915, the Thirty-Fourth Texas Legislature authorized and funded a college with the name, Stephen F. Austin State Normal College, to be located "east of the 96th meridian."

This first attempt to establish SFA failed, as the Heritage Series indicated last week; the law was first declared unconstitutional, then died a second death as the legislative session closed without completing action.

In 1917, the lawmakers in the Thirty-Fifth Legislature passed House Bill No. 72 on April 4, 1917. This omnibus law chartered and funded Stephen F. Austin State Normal College for the second time. The location was still to be "east of the 96th meridian." The charter eventually survived the torturous Texas political scene of that year (which included the impeachment of Governor Ferguson) and the entrance of the United States into World War I, giving SFA the charter date of 1917. But, the charter was stripped of its appropriations component which would have provided for its implementation. The university had a charter, as did South Texas Normal at Kingsville. These events are explored in the Heritage Series this week. The extensive use of contemporary accounts is done on purpose to give the flavor of the moods in 1917. The drama of the events in 1917 have complete slipped out of current memories and needs to be rekindled.

1917 was perhaps the most important year in the early part of this century; Germany went into dictatorship, the Russians went into Revolution, and the United State left its isolation permanently. The year 1917 was also the most important year in Nacogdoches modern history. While the legislation chartering the college had used the vague phrase "east of the 96th meridian," the meaning of the phrase, agreed upon by the Governor and the Board of Regents, was defined to mean the City of Nacogdoches. While only symbolically significant at the time and not something which helped the citizens recoup their heavy expenses in securing the honor, the series of events in 1917 set such a stamp on the local psyche that the year's importance cannot be overemphasized.

In 1917, Nacogdoches wanted SFA more than any of the other towns in East Texas; other towns recognized this, too. The determination to have it produced unity, and that unity in turn sustained the town during the winters of uncertainties which were to follow.

The period of waiting after 1917 until their charter could be implemented will be the subject next week.