In 1841, Samford University was founded as Howard College in Marion, Alabama. Rev. James Harvey DeVotie advocated naming the college after the 18th century philanthropist and English prison reformer, John Howard.
To a modern audience, John Howard seems a strange choice for a small Baptist college in Alabama. He was not Baptist, nor was he heavily involved in church matters. Rather, John Howard was a member of the merchant class of Britain and recognized as the first English prison reformer. He traveled across Europe documenting the deplorable conditions of prisons.
As for his dedication as a prison reformer, Howard viewed his work as humanitarian. In the 19th century, prison reform was a topic of heavy debate which is perhaps why DeVotie chose to name the school after the renowned John Howard. He was widely revered as a model of Christian compassion.
If you'd like to read more about John Howard, check out Dean Chapman's article for Season's magazine in Spring 2005 or come visit the Special Collection. The Special Collection in the University Library holds a first edition, 1777, of John Howard's book on English prisons and a second edition, 1791, of his book on European prisons, as well as a letter by Howard and several other items of interest, all thanks to the generosity of a donor.
So, why aren't we still Howard? In part because when Howard College became a university in 1965 there already was a Howard University. The name was changed to Samford University in honor of Frank Park Samford and the Samford family's contribution to the university.
The Howard College of Arts and Sciences retained both the name and the legacy of this great humanitarian.
Text provided by Rachel Cohen, Archivst & User Services Librarian