Established in 1881 by the American Baptist Home Mission Society, Bishop College was named in honor of Nathan Bishop, a white attorney and Society board member who supported the creation of a Baptist college for African Americans in Texas. The Society acquired the former Beverly LaFayette Holcombe estate in Marshall, Texas, for the Bishop campus in 1880 and later expanded it by purchasing adjacent land from white and black property owners.
In its early years, Bishop operated a grammar and high school and offered industrial training, like carpentry and wood-working, but its primary mission was to educate African Americans to be teachers and preachers. By 1898, most of the college level students at Bishop were enrolled in the school’s normal program, which prepared students to teach and allowed them to practice their training in the college’s grade school.
In 1901, the Texas Department of Education awarded Bishop its top rating, certifying the quality of its academic offerings. Then, in 1930, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) began accrediting institutions for African Americans, it assigned Bishop College a B rating. This certification confirmed what many black residents of Marshall and East Texas already knew: that Bishop College offered a rigorous educational program that prepared black students to excel in the South despite the limitations of Jim Crow segregation.
In 1929, on the eve of Bishop’s SACS accreditation report, the school hired its first African American president, Joseph J. Rhoads. A Marshall native and Bishop graduate, Rhoads instituted a period of significant growth and transformation during his two decades of leadership at the campus. For starters, he discontinued the college’s secondary school and emphasized collegiate programming. In 1931, he also introduced an annual institute for ministers, which soon attracted hundreds of clergy to Bishop’s continuing education initiative. Other advancements included partnerships with New Deal agencies, such as the Works Progress Administration, which helped to establish a nursery school at Bishop in 1937, allowing students to gain experience teaching kindergarten-aged children.
Rhoads also saw Bishop through the challenges associated with World War II, like decreased enrollment and funding. After the war ended, Bishop thrived, opening a junior college in Dallas in 1946 and earning an A rating from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1948. At the same time, Rhoads became an active opponent of segregation. He served as head of the Texas Council of Negro Organizations, spoke out in support of Sweatt v. Painter, and encouraged desegregation of colleges campuses across the state.
Following Rhoads' death in 1951, the next president of Bishop College continued to improve its physical plant, even building a football stadium for night games, but some members of the school's board supported moving the college to Dallas. The United Negro College Fund, which offered financial support to the college and its students, wanted to avoid duplication of services and questioned whether Marshall, also home to Wiley College, should have two black colleges when Dallas had none. In 1957, Bishop College announced it would close its Marshall campus and relocate to Dallas. The last Bishop class in Marshall graduated on May 26, 1961, and the college reopened in Dallas that summer.
The Marshall campus was sold in August 1961 and its buildings were demolished. Despite its initial success in Dallas, Bishop later lost its accreditation and facing financial problems, it closed in 1988.