Before Baylor: A Brief Story of Waco University

By Brian Simmons, Archival Assistant and Digital Input Specialist

Waco University pamphlet
Pamphlets like this were written by Rufus C. Burleson to inform interested parties about developments at Waco University and appeal for support. Waco University collection #169, box 1, folder 6.

Baylor University’s Waco roots are tied to the somewhat short lived Waco University. Originally founded as an all-male high school in 1857, the institution eventually came under the control of the Waco Baptist Association, which gave it the name Waco Classical School. In the 1860s, amid internal administrative issues, school management decided to seek new leadership to take the school in a new direction. The trustees offered then current Baylor University President, Rufus C. Burleson, control of the institution. Burleson, who at the time was clashing with faculty in Independence, accepted the offer from the Waco Classical School. He resigned from Baylor in the spring of 1861 and moved to Waco, taking with him many Baylor professors and students.

Waco University catalogue, 1877-1878
Annual catalogs created by Waco University not only listed that year’s course offerings, but also described the guidelines and culture of the university. Waco University collection #169, box 1, folder 3.


With Burleson as President, the Waco Classical School was transformed into Waco University over the summer of 1861. The University officially opened as an all-male institution on September 2 of the same year. The venture was moderately successful, but the momentum of the Civil War took a toll on the development of the fledgling university. Although it remained open throughout the war, Waco University faced budget shortfalls and periods of low enrollment.

After the war, the University began to flourish with increased matriculation and an expanded curriculum. The creation of the female department in 1866 made Waco University among the first coeducational universities in the United States.  Although men and women attended the same university and were taught by the same professors, gender segregation was not uncommon.

Waco University diploma for Josephine Ann Corley, 1870
An example of Waco University’s gender sensitivity is found on Josephine Ann Corley’s 1870 diploma. At the time, women were awarded “Maid of Arts” degrees, whereas men were awarded “Bachelor of Arts” degrees. Waco University collection #169, box 4, folder 1.

As Waco University matured, it began to compete with Baylor for potential students. This complication was further compounded by the fact that two different Baptist organizations supported the universities. Both universities existed alongside each other for a number of years. The arrival of train service to Waco would be the beginning of the end for Baylor in Independence. Without a major source of transportation, Baylor began to decline. Later in 1885, the two Baptist organizations that supported the universities joined together and decided to support only one university. It was decided that the organization would consolidate both universities to form Baylor University at Waco. Waco University’s Board of Trustees held their final meetings in 1887 to transfer all assets to Baylor.

Former site of Waco University (now First Baptist Church of Waco)
The 500 block of South Fifth Street is the approximate area where some of the Waco University buildings were located. First Baptist Church of Waco now occupies this site.

Waco University ceased operations at the end of the spring 1886 term.  Baylor University at Waco was not much of a change for students of the defunct university. The same curriculum, faculty, facilities, and polices were retained for the first few years. That would soon end as Baylor gradually shifted away from what was established at Waco University. Baylor began to build new buildings to the south and altered the curriculum. After the completion of buildings on the new campus, the remaining Waco University structure became the Maggie Houston Hall dormitory before eventually being phased out. Waco University was Baylor’s entry to Waco, but it is more than just a footnote in Baylor’s history. Visit the Texas Collection to view the Waco University collection and see its digitized catalogs to explore this institution’s own rich history.


Baker, Eugene W. To Light the Ways of Time: An Illustrated History of Baylor University, 1845-1986. Waco: Baylor University, 1987.

Bragg, Jefferson Davis. “Waco University.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 51, no. 3 (January 1948): 213-224.

Guemple, John Robert. “A History of Waco University.” Master’s thesis, Baylor University, 1964.

“Waco University.” Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas. Ed. Dayton Kelley. Waco: Texian Press, 1972.


  • mike magers

    February 5, 2014 at 11:51 am Reply

    Do we know the details of the transaction whereby Waco University acquired the land where Old Main and Georgia Burleson Hall reside? I believe that much of it was originally part of the old Speight farm. Indications are that a transaction was entered into whereby J. W. Speight and another individual sold land to the City of Waco which land was subsequently acquired by Waco University some time before the merger of Baylor U. and Waco U. This might make an interesting column, if the information can be found. I really enjoy your posts!

    • Amanda Norman

      February 5, 2014 at 4:31 pm Reply

      Hi Mike, thanks for your question and the compliment! You’re correct about General J.W. Speight’s role in the acquisition of the land–in the April 14, 1886, minutes of the Board, they document the deed of conveyance to “certain lands in the city of Waco, known as the Speight and West homestead places.” According to Kent Keeth in a 1981 article for The Baylor Line, Speight’s land (known as Oak Lawn) extended from Speight Ave. on the south to Waco Creek on the north, and from Fifth St. westward to about the site of Founders Mall. He already had sold some of his land (where the Bill Daniel Student Center is now) to a couple named Greer, who sold it to Baylor. John Camden West’s tract (known as Minglewood Park) was narrower, east-west, but took the campus north of Waco Creek to Dutton Ave. The people of Waco helped contribute funds for these parcels, which totaled about 23 acres.

      The Waco University leaders wasted no time (and indeed there was no time to be wasted, because Baylor was coming to Waco in a few months!), and the cornerstone for what we now know as Old Main was laid in June, and Burleson Hall was started soon after.

      You’re right–there’s much more to be said about Baylor’s early days in Waco. We’re sure to come back to it!

  • mike magers

    July 22, 2014 at 7:16 am Reply

    Dear Amanda, I apologize for being so slow to respond. I’d inadvertently failed to check the “notify me” box at the bottom of my first reply, so I didn’t see your answer until today. This is wonderful information and includes details that I had wondered about for years. Many, many thanks!

  • John Dickey

    October 19, 2014 at 5:54 am Reply

    I am trying to locate any pictures/photographs of Joseph Warren Speight. I am the Adjutant of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Felix H. Robertson Camp #129. We are considering changing the name of the Camp in honor of Col. Joseph Warren Speight, as we have found that the background of Gen. Robertson was somewhat “tainted”. Although he was the last surviving General of the War Between the States, his military record was not exemplary! Col. Speight was given a field promotion to General, however, because he had to retire from service his appointment was not competed. We intend to strive to obtain a permanent appointment for him.

    • Mike Magers

      December 2, 2014 at 5:32 pm Reply

      John Dickey, I can help you with the image request. I am sure that I can find some images of him. There’s a link to a contact form for me on this page: A Soldier’s Prayer, attributed to Joseph Speight

      • Amanda Norman

        December 3, 2014 at 7:59 am Reply

        Hi Mike, our photo archivist corresponded with John, and I believe was able to provide some images of Gen. Speight. But maybe you can contribute to his work to honor Speight, too. We love when our readers can help each other out!

        • Mike Magers

          December 3, 2014 at 9:30 am Reply

          I know of an oil painting of Speight. If you don’t have an image of that, I could probably get one.

  • Mike Magers

    December 2, 2014 at 5:36 pm Reply

    A further word: Your post answers a question that I have had. He was referred to as Gen. Speight in some literature but I believe he (along with some members of his family) probably referred to himself as Col. Speight. I have always wondered why and your comment explains it. Many thanks!

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