Karl E. Downs, black minister and college president, was born on June 2, 1912, in Abilene, the son of John Wesley and Lucretia (Hollis) Downs. He attended Moore High School in Waco and graduated in 1929. He received his A.B. degree from Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson College) in Austin in 1933, a B.D. degree from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1936,and a masters of sacred theology from Boston University in 1937. Downs, like his father, became a Methodist minister. After attending Boston University he traveled extensively for the Methodist Board of Foreign Missions recruiting college youth.
From about 1939 to 1943 he served as pastor of Scott Methodist Church in Pasadena, California. He established community services that gained widespread attention. Many of his efforts were designed to help children-the organization of a nursery, the building of a church recreational yard, and the provision of toys to poor children. Downs also helped organize the Interracial Fellowship Church, which met monthly and provided a forum for prominent speakers both black and white.
In 1943 he was named president of Samuel Huston College. Though he was only twenty-nine at the time, his leadership proved to be beneficial for the institution. In his 4½-year tenure enrollment increased from 174 to more than 600. The college's annual budget increased each year; several new buildings were added.
Downs published a number of religious articles and a book, Meet the Negro (1943). He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the American Sociological Society, the National Association of College Presidents, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He married Marion Carroll Jackson, and they had one daughter. In 1945 he received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Gammon Theological Seminary. At the time of his death he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California. Downs died on February 26, 1948, in Austin, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery.