View of the Quad in 1859. The Rotunda can be seen at center, with the halls visible in the background. All buildings depicted were destroyed on April 4, 1865.
In 1818, U.S. Congress authorized the newly created Alabama Territory to set aside a township for the establishment of a "seminary of learning". When Alabama was admitted to the Union on December 14, 1819, a second township was added to the land grant, bringing it to a total of 46,000 acres (186 km²). The General Assembly of Alabama established the seminary on December 18, 1820, named it "The University of the State of Alabama", and created a Board of Trustees to manage the construction and operation of the university. The board selected a construction site and an architect to design the campus. The site the board chose was located, at the time, outside the city limits of the erstwhile state capital, Tuscaloosa. William Nichols, the architect of both the Alabama State Capitol building and Christ Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa, was chosen to design the campus. Influenced by Thomas Jefferson's plan at the University of Virginia, the Nichols-designed campus featured a 70-foot (21 m) wide, 70-foot (21 m) high domed Rotunda that served as the library and nucleus of the campus. The university's charter was presented to the first university president in the nave of Christ Episcopal Church. UA opened its doors to students on April 18, 1831, with the Reverend Alva Woods as president.
A view of either Tuomey Hall or Oliver-Barnard Hall, one of the first buildings constructed after the university reopened after the Civil War, in 1907
An academy-style institution during the Antebellum period, the university emphasized the classics and the social and natural sciences. There were around 100 students per year at UA in the 1830s. However, as Alabama was a frontier state and a sizable amount of its territory was still in the hands of various Native American tribes until the 1840s, it lacked the infrastructure to adequately prepare students for the rigors of university education. Consequently, only a fraction of students who enrolled in the early years remained enrolled for long and even fewer graduated. Those who did graduate, however, often had distinguished careers in Alabama and national politics. Early graduates included Benjamin F. Porter and Alexander Meek.
As the state and university matured, an active literary culture evolved on campus and in Tuscaloosa. UA had one of the largest libraries in the country on the eve of the Civil War with more than 7,000 volumes. There were several thriving literary societies, including the Erosophic and the Phi Beta Kappa societies, which frequently had lectures by such distinguished politicians and literary figures as United States Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, novelist William Gilmore Simms, and Professor Frederick Barnard (later president of Columbia University). The addresses to those societies reveal a vibrant intellectual culture in Tuscaloosa; they also illustrate the proslavery ideas that were so central to the university and the state.
Discipline and student behavior was a major issue at the university almost from the day it opened. Early presidents attempted to enforce strict rules regarding conduct. Students were prohibited from drinking, swearing, making unauthorized visits off-campus, or playing musical instruments outside a one-hour time frame. Yet riots and gunfights were not an uncommon occurrence. To combat the severe discipline problem, president Landon Garland lobbied and received approval from the legislature in 1860 to transform the university into a military school.
From the Civil War to World War II
Many of the cadets who graduated from the school went on to serve as officers in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As a consequence of that role, Union troops burned down the campus on April 4, 1865 (only 5 days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9), which was unrelated to Sherman's March to the Sea several months earlier and farther east, in Georgia. Despite a call to arms and defense by the student cadet corps, only four buildings survived the burning: the President's Mansion (1841), Gorgas House (1829), Little Round House (1860), and Old Observatory (1844). The university reopened in 1871 and in 1880, Congress granted the university 40,000 acres (162 km²) of coal land in partial compensation for $250,000 in war damages.
The University of Alabama allowed female students beginning in 1892. The Board of Trustees allowed female students largely due to Julia S. Tutwiler, with the condition that they be over eighteen, and would be allowed to enter the sophomore class after completing their first year at another school and passing an exam. Ten women from Tutwiler's Livingston school enrolled for the 1893 fall semester. By 1897, women were allowed to enroll as freshmen.
During World War II, UA was one of 131 colleges and universities nationally that took part in the V-12 Navy College Training Program which offered students a path to a Navy commission. During this time the University of Alabama had extensions in other cities including Mobile; the University of South Alabama was opened in 1963 to replace that program.
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George Wallace's "stand in the schoolhouse door" to attempt to stop integration of other races at the University of Alabama.
Until the 1960s, attendance at the university was reserved for white people, as part of the practice of racial segregation in the American South. The first attempt to integrate the university occurred in 1956 when Autherine Lucy successfully enrolled on February 3 as a graduate student in library sciences after having secured a court order preventing the university from rejecting her application on the basis of race. In the face of violent protests against her attendance, Lucy was suspended (and later outright expelled) three days later by the board of trustees on the basis of being unable to provide a safe learning environment for her. The university was not successfully integrated until 1963 when Vivian Malone and James Hood registered for classes on June 11.
Foster Auditorium and Malone-Hood Plaza today. Lucy Clock Tower is in the foreground.
Governor George Wallace made his infamous "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door", standing in the front entrance of Foster Auditorium in a symbolic attempt to stop Malone and Hood's enrollment. When confronted by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and federal marshals sent in by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Wallace stepped aside. President John F. Kennedy had called for the integration of the University of Alabama, as well. Although Hood dropped out of school after two months, he subsequently returned and, in 1997, received his PhD in philosophy. Malone persisted in her studies and became the first African American to graduate from the university. In 2000, the university granted her a doctorate of humane letters. Autherine Lucy's expulsion was rescinded in 1980, and she successfully re-enrolled and graduated with a master's degree in 1992. Later in his life, Wallace apologized for his opposition at that time to racial integration. In 2010, the university formally honored Lucy, Hood and Malone by rechristening the plaza in front of Foster Auditorium as Malone-Hood Plaza and erecting a clock tower – Autherine Lucy Clock Tower – in the plaza.
On April 27, 2011, Tuscaloosa was hit by a tornado rated EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which left a large path of complete destruction but spared the campus. Six students who lived on off-campus premises were confirmed dead by the university. Due to the infrastructural damage of the city (approx. 12% of the city) and the loss of life, the university cancelled the rest of the spring semester and postponed graduation.