Looking back on 150 years of Mercer in Macon


Drew Robertson

Pictured are two of Mercer University’s historic catalogues. The book in the top left corner lists the names, years, and ages of all the students enrolled in the Spring of 1870, just before Mercer’s move to Macon. The bottom left book is the front page of the catalogue from 1872-1873 with a mock-up of the future administration building.

In April of 1870, the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to move Mercer University to Macon after years of debate and controversy. Mercer students began taking classes above a jewelry store in downtown Macon in 1871 — 150 years ago. 

Arlette Copeland, an assistant archivist in Mercer’s Tarver Library, helped shed some light on Mercer’s past by providing some general history and articles. 

When Mercer was started in 1833 in Penfield, Ga., the enrollment consisted of 39 white males, and Mercer had not yet achieved “university” status. It was instead known as “Mercer Institute,” according to the Mercer University website

The Mercer student body multiplied while at Penfield, but there was little development of educational opportunities. Mercer trustees began discussing a potential move for the university because “positions in the city call for training in the city,” Sylvanus Landrum was quoted in James C. Bryant’s article “From Penfield to Macon: Mercer University’s Problematic Move.”

“By the end of 1870 students and faculty had left the practically deserted rural village of Penfield to begin a new era in the history of Mercer University,” Bryant wrote. 

Over the next 150 years, the new era of Mercer history was marked with innovation, triumphs and a drastic transformation from a small institute in Penfield. 

Physically, Mercer has grown exponentially since the time the entire university was housed in the R. Kirby Godsey Administration building. 

In the past few decades, “there’s been a lot of physical changes to the campus, dramatic changes,” Senior Vice President of Marketing Communications and Chief of Staff Larry Brumley said. Mercer has added the University Center, Five Star Stadium, and new housing facilities on the Macon campus. 

The university has also changed its academic outlook. Mercer began as a school for men interested in pursuing pastorship, but now “with 12 schools and colleges, it’s a very dynamic institution,” Brumley said.  

Mercer has also expanded the student body, and not just in size. 

Carolyn Pierce Jackson’s graduation from Mercer University’s School of Law in 1919 marked one of the many advancements in Mercer’s history as the first female law school graduate. 

In 1923, Caroline Patterson was the first woman to earn her undergraduate degree from Mercer. 

In 1963, the Mercer board of trustees voted to allow the admission of students without regard to race or color of skin.

Sam Oni, an African American from Ghana, was the first Black man to be accepted to Mercer. 

Mercerians “proposed that contributions from students be raised and used to pay the standard $75 room reservation fee for Oni as a gesture of good will and friendliness,” according to an article in The Mercer Cluster. 

Flash forward 52 years, and Mercer continued to create a more inclusive university with the “We are Mercer Rally” which centered around National Coming Out Day. 

Mercerians placed an advertisement in The Mercer Cluster in 2005 which read in part, “we, the undersigned, value equally the LGBT student, faculty, and staff members at Mercer who bring their gifts to our campus and add to the richness and diversity of our intellectual community.”

After the rally, the Georgia Baptist Convention broke its tie with Mercer because of the university’s stance on LGBTQ+ students and faculty, according to Director of Mercer Service Scholars Mary Alice Morgan. 

“Mercer has always been pretty entrepreneurial as a private institution, and has also been very service-oriented in responding to the needs of the communities we serve,” Brumley said. 

Mercer has influenced many service projects centered around the Macon community. 

The College Hill Corridor and Promise Neighborhood, an initiative between 31 Macon nonprofit organizations and Mercer, are two of the service projects. As well as the STOP conference to end sex trafficking and the Beall’s Hill development near campus, according to Morgan. 

“We’ve worked hard, not only using our resources for kind of economic and community development, but we’ve worked really hard to develop a more reciprocal relationship with addressing the needs of the underserved folks in the community,” Morgan said. 

Mercer’s influence has expanded beyond the borders of Macon into Georgia and the world beyond. 

After 150 years in Macon, 2021 marks a new era for Mercer. 

“Jesse Mercer could not have imagined the kind of global impact that this university has today that bears his name,” Brumley said. “I think Mercer will continue on that trajectory.”