Huntsville, Ala. ---- Long before Alabama A&M University found its football team listed among the powerhouse squads fielded by Auburn University, an Auburn, Ala., native took the fledgling hillside school from the brink of extinction to one of international reputation.
Dr. Joseph Fanning Drake, fourth president of AAMU, born March 25, 1892, has
been dubbed by historians as “The Builder,” primarily because of his accomplishments in expanding the historically black university physically and academically, even in the midst of the great depression of the 1930s.
With the assistance of federal, foundation and state funds, Drake erected Councill Hall, Hurt Hall, Thigpen Hall (women’s residence halls); J. F. Drake Dining Hall; Bibb Graves Hall (classroom building); the College Center; Grayson Hall and Walker Wood Hall (men’s residence halls); and the Carter Science Building.
Those facilities alone—all still in use—would have been ample enough in scope to solidify his place in AAMU history. But Drake also added to the physical plant a vocational building, gymnasium, eight teachers cottages, faculty apartments, four trades buildings, 20 farm buildings, and the first greenhouse.
Other historians report that the man from The Plains might also have well been called “The Savior,” because only the efforts of his administration prevented the
Huntsville school from being entirely closed. So certain were the faculty and local residents that Dr. Drake had been sent to close the school that he found it necessary to remark quite often: “I did not come here to conduct the funeral of A&M.”
Drake obtained his early education in his hometown of Auburn and later attended historic Talladega College, where he received the A.B. degree. He later earned the master’s degree from Columbia University and the Ph.D. degree from Cornell University.
He launched his distinguished career as an assistant principal of a high school in Corsicana, Tex., from 1916-1918; served in the U.S. Expeditionary Forces in France in 1918; and, after World War I, returned to school work as a high school science teacher at Avery Institute, Charleston, S.C. He became an assistant principal at Avery and met Anne Quick of Orangeburg, S.C. They were married September 14, 1920. Their union later was blessed with two children: Dr. Harold Fanning Drake and Dr. Miriam Yvonne Weston.
Drake returned to Alabama in 1920 as a supervisor of adult education until 1925. He worked during the same period as junior and senior high school principal and later as dean of the Junior College at the State Normal School, Montgomery, Ala., during the period 1920-1927. In 1927, Drake became president of the State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute (Alabama A&M).
Under the leadership of Dr. Drake, the college enrollment of Alabama A&M increased from twenty-seven students in 1927 to five hundred and twenty-five in 1940-1941. He increased the evaluation of the physical plant three-fold, and raised the institute from a junior college to a senior college. He became a trustee of Talladega College; a 32nd degree Mason; and a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
Drake’s prominence extended far beyond “The Hill.” For instance, he also served as president of the Alabama State Teachers Association, 1934-1935; president of the Conference of Presidents of Land-Grant Colleges in America, 1935-1936; member, Board of Trustees of the American Teachers Association; representative, American Teachers Association, World Organization of Teaching Professors, Copenhagen, Denmark (1952), and at Washington, D.C. (1959); and member, Governor's Committee on Higher Education.
Not only in the field of education did the Auburn native contribute noble service to others, but Dr. Drake also served as a pioneer in the organization of the then Negro Division of the Tennessee Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of
America. Under his leadership, over 1,000 African-American boys benefitted from the Scout program. Moreover, the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, on the recommendation of the Tennessee Valley Council, awarded Dr. Drake the conveted Silver Beaver Award in 1946 for outstanding service to Boyhood. This award is the highest honor given in Scouting.
For Normalites of Alabama A&M University young and old, the Drake name is synonymous with tenacity, class, competence and concern for the betterment of humankind. While during his college years, Drake would not have been permitted to enter the halls of Auburn University due to shortsightedness of the times, his vision has inspired generations who have graced the halls of academia at Auburn University and throughout the world. Because he persevered, the jewel of “The Hill” has now rolled down to the Plains.
by Jerome Saintjones