A TULLIBODY born man in the 19th century transformed education in the southern United States of America. His name was William Burns Patterson.

On 9th February 1850, William was born to John Paterson and his wife Janet Burns. John was a still man at the local Glenochil Distillery and a gardener for the Abercrombies of Tullibody House but died when William was young.

Leaving school aged 12 he worked on the estate gardens where his interest in flowers took hold. When he was 17 he worked his way across the Atlantic on a cargo ship as a deckhand and arrived in New York. For the first three years his intention was to walk to every state, finding work as he did so.

In 1870 he was employed on the New Orleans to Ale County, Alabama, railroad and for six months worked on a dredger on the Black Warrior River. Many African-Americans working alongside him asked William to teach them to read and write and so began a lifelong career.

He opened a day school near the McFadden plantation under a brush arbour then a log cabin named Hopewell four miles outside Greenboro. With the help of two people from the Baptist church, he began teaching women and children too.

In 1871 he moved the school to the town, teaching only five or six students under oak trees and sitting on logs, then, utilising his construction skills, the purpose built Tullibody Academy for Negroes opened a year later. Many of the white population opposed his school, fearing it would cost them money and stating, ‘Let the Negros educate themselves.’ But some leading citizens of the town and local plantation owners, including William’s friends the McFaddens, supported him.

By September 1873, the school hoped to offer students not only the Three Rs, but chemistry, music and foreign languages. In 1877, the local newspaper The Alabama Beacon stated that Tullibody Academy was ‘among the better Negro schools’ and had ‘four teachers and the principal.’

With a growing reputation he was asked to head up the state-funded Lincoln Normal School and University for Coloured Students and Teachers being built at Marian, which he did until his death.

Soon afterwards he married teacher Maggie Flack, with whom he had five children. In December 1886 fire broke out at the Lincoln where the main building burned to the ground. Tensions rose between the white students who attended Howard College, and the black ones taught at Lincoln so the Patersons moved to Montgomery but lost funding due to their new school being classed as industrial.

Paterson and his wife opened their school in Alabama in October 1887 where they struggled to keep it going for two years until state funding was forthcoming, although it was downgraded from university status to a normal and industrial facility.

Black members of the local church raised money and William built a new three-story complex just outside Montgomery which he named Tullibody Hall. Over the next three years, the couple built a home with a greenhouse, starting up a nursery business to supplement their income, and opened a flower shop in Montgomery in 1890.

One night the family was woken and outside was a straw fiery cross with a note stating that if the Patersons did not stop teaching their black students and leave, their house would be burned to the ground with them inside. The following evening, the Ku Klux Klan returned but the William was ready for them. Five sharpshooters waited behind him as he rocked in his chair on the porch reading his book. As soon as the KKK caught sight of the armed men, they left and never bothered the Patersons again.

This was William’s second run-in with the Klan. In the early 1870s, they had arrived in Greenboro to get one of their own out of jail. At midnight one Sunday around a hundred arrived, guns held high, but William shot into the air and within minutes the Klan were surrounded by armed locals.

These men were law abiding like William, who loathed the violence he had witnessed since his arrival in America. In later years his former students would remember one of his favourite phrases: ‘Happy is the country that has no history, because history generally is a chronicle of strife and turmoil.’

In 1904, Maggie died of Bright’s Disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys. This was the same year Tullibody Hall was burned to the ground. Unperturbed, William re-built the Hall and within two years was teaching over 1000 students, although it was only categorised as an elementary school with industrial training.

William died on 16th March 1915. The Patersons are recognised today as the founders of Alabama State Normal School for Coloureds that later became Alabama State University. In his honour, the College of Art and Science is named William Paterson Hall and the School of Music is named Tullibody Hall. Founders Day is celebrated on his birthday.

The small flower shop the Patersons started remained a family business until 1984 when it was sold. Many descendants of William still live in the area.