The University of North Alabama began as Florence Wesleyan University, formerly LaGrange College of nearby Franklin County.
LaGrange College was a Methodist institution founded in 1830 and was the first state chartered college in the state.
As the college faced financial strains in the 1850s, the college struck a deal between the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the City of Florence to relocate the college to nearby Lauderdale County.
The City of Florence agreed to provide a large building and an endowment for the college. To reflect these changes, the name of the institution changed to Florence Wesleyan University in 1855.
Prussian-born American architect Adolphus Heiman is credited with the design of the first and now oldest building on campus, Wesleyan Hall. He was not however directly involved with its construction. The "builder" of Florence Wesleyan University was Zebulon Pike Morrison, a local builder and several term mayor of Florence.
Though Morrison held the title of "builder" and managed the construction of Wesleyan Hall, he relied on the forced labor of enslaved persons to build it. The brick itself is also believed to have been made on the southern edge of campus by enslaved laborers. Wesleyan was completed in 1856.
Unfortunately, the names of these enslaved laborers and brick-makers are not known. Records indicate the City may have rented their time and skills from their enslavers, though it is not known who their enslavers were.
Standing at the northern end of Court Street, Rogers Hall is the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in Florence. With its massive Ionic columns and raised entry, this building was built as a display of wealth and power.
George Washington Foster was a wealthy planter and industrialist who owned over 100 slaves. He chose this spot to build his impressive house because it was the highest point on Court Street and commanded a view of the city. He had to petition the legislature to close Court Street to allow him to build on this lot. The house was built between 1848 and 1855 by enslaved workers.
In the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), several writers crisscrossed the country collecting firsthand accounts of the formerly enslaved.
One writer recorded the narrative of Tom W. Woods, then of Alderson, Oklahoma. He was 83 years old at the time. Woods was born in Florence on one of George Washington Foster's plantations located about eight miles from downtown Florence. Foster and his family lived at Courtview, his plantation in town. Woods' mother was also enslaved by Foster, but his father was enslaved at an adjoining plantation owned by Moses Foster. Woods says his father walked a mile before and after work each day to be with his family at night. His work day started around four o'clock in the morning.
Woods says Foster was "good and kind to all his slaves when he was sober, but he was awful crabbed and cross when he was drunk, and he was drunk most of the time." Woods also recalls spending time at Courtview after Foster's wife Sarah moved her there to take care of their children. He says he was there when the Union army came through town on their way to Decatur, and that it took three days for them to pass.
Woods says he was also there when the Union army returned to bring them to a "government farm" in Athens where they stayed and worked until the wars' end and their eventual emancipation.
Though he mentions that some of the formerly enslaved returned to the plantations they had worked on prior to emancipation, he and his mother did not return to Florence after they were freed.
Courtview was acquired by then Florence State Teachers College (now UNA) in 1948 and renamed Rogers Hall in honor of Thomas M. Rogers, the owner of Rogers Department Store, who had renovated the house and sold it with an accompanying five acres to the college.