Reuben Shannon Lovinggood, African-American educator, newspaper editor, speaker, and the first president of Samuel Huston College, was born in 1864 in Walhalla, Oconee County, South Carolina. His father’s name is listed simply as Lovinggood on the death certificate of R. S. Lovinggood, while his mother’s name is listed as Leah Lay. A self-described, “Mountain Black,” Lovinggood was born into poverty with few prospects for an education. He learned the alphabet in Sunday school at age twelve. In 1881 he enrolled at Clark University (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia, and in 1890 he graduated with a B. A. degree in classics.
For a short time afterwards, Lovinggood was co-owner and editor of the Atlanta Times, a weekly newspaper. However, in December of 1891 he sold his share of the paper and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he accepted a principal’s position at Cameron Public School, an elementary school. In 1894 he married Lillie G. England of Birmingham, and in 1895 they moved to Marshall, Texas, where Lovinggood became chair of the Greek and Latin department at Wiley College. Their marriage was short-lived, however, and Lillie died in 1896, ten days after giving birth to their son, Reuben Penman Lovinggood. Despite this loss, Lovinggood remained at the college. He married Mattie Alice Townsend, also of Birmingham, on April 25, 1900. They had five children—Beulah, Burrows, Roosevelt, Mattie, and Clarissa.
During this time, and throughout his life, Lovinggood was a prominent leader in the (Colored) Methodist Episcopal Church. He was a member of that church’s general committee, a frequent representative of Texas to the church’s general conference, a representative of the Seventh Episcopal District on the church’s board of foreign missions, and a leader in the Texas Epworth League, an educational association for young Methodists. For many years he also served the church as secretary of the Freedman’s Aid Society and Southern Education Society.
In 1900 Lovinggood was elected by the aforementioned society to be the first president of Samuel Huston College, a Methodist Episcopal-affiliated school built for Blacks in Austin, Texas, that later merged with Tillotson College in 1952. When the college opened in the fall of 1900 there was just one unfinished building with only four usable rooms, two teachers, no furniture, no kitchen or dishes, and the basement was being used to house livestock. However, eighty-three students were present on the first day of class, and half of them expected to board. When he later described those first days, Lovinggood recalled, “The students sat on trunks while I gave them a lecture and went out to beg chairs, dishes, beds, etc. We called upon the neighbors, both White and Black; all responded liberally. Our first meal was a jug of molasses and fourteen loaves of bread."
Over the next sixteen years, Lovinggood and his wife, Mattie, worked to improve the school. In 1904 they opened the Eliza Dee Industrial Home for Girls on the campus; in 1910 Lovinggood organized a classics department at Huston. In February 1911 The Christian Educator magazine published an article celebrating the college’s tenth anniversary. There was substantial progress to report as the college had grown to include five buildings, nineteen faculty members, and more than 500 students. The institution could also boast seventy-one graduates and Lovinggood managing a campus with property worth $87,000. The Christian Educator reported that “Samuel Huston College has grown in ten years to [be] one of the largest and best schools of our Church for colored youth in the South.” When Lovinggood saw the need to construct a new industrial building, he took it upon himself to raise $6,000 of the remaining $10,000 needed. Thanks to their early efforts, by 1927 Samuel Huston College made enough progress to be considered a Class A senior college.
Lovinggood served as president of the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas from 1905 to 1906, and he worked to institute uniform requirements for diplomas and degrees in Texas’s Black schools. On an interesting aside, while teaching at Huston College, Mrs. Lovinggood also attended classes at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Library Science. Although Black students were not allowed to attend, she was so fair-skinned that her racial background was not known to the administration.
Reuben Lovinggood enjoyed a distinguished career at Samuel Huston College and earned the respect of the students and staff as well as the confidence of Austin’s city officials. Unfortunately, he suffered from chronically poor health, and on December 17, 1916, Lovinggood died due to chronic nephritis. His funeral in Austin was well-attended. The Austin city council was present, and the mayor made a speech. Lovinggood was buried in Oakwood Cemetery. He was remembered by many for his fair criticisms of Jim Crow and a teaching philosophy that inspired Samuel Huston College’s school motto, “Strive always to treat others better than they treat you.” His admirable outlook is perhaps best exhibited in a speech given by him on “Colored People’s Day” at the Texas State Fair in 1903, in which he said:
We must strive to be the most patriotic, the most industrious, the most peaceable, the most honest, the most useful, in fact, the best citizens in the community, for this is not a white man’s government. It is a government for good people, and he who best serves his State is the best citizen. To this end usefulness should be our motto. The rule of love should govern us….Love is eternal, hate is short lived. By love we can conquer.