By Dr. Reginald Owens

A Grambling Chamber of Commerce magazine boasts: “Grambling, La., is the story of a village that raised a university.” It is a story that began more than 140 years ago when newly freed slaves settled here to build a farming community and other self-help institutions including one that would become Grambling State University.

Street names, churches, historic markers and buildings make the community and the university a virtual living textbook of African-American history. My great-granddad, Phillip Lewis Sr., was the first elected president of the Liberty Hill Baptist Association, founded in 1882. According to one source, it was his organization, along with the North Louisiana Colored Agricultural Farmers Relief Association Union, that in 1899 started an industrial training school that would eventually become Grambling State (although a historical marker at the original site of the university lists the founding year as 1896).

Another great-grandfather, Gene Younger, was a member of the Farmers Relief Association Union. These two organizations wrote a letter to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with the request for someone to help with their fledgling school. Washington sent Charles P. Adams. Adams got the school on a good footing, but the relationship ended in a dispute over the direction of the school. At this point, Adams and his local supporters raised money and bought land about a mile and a half east of the original school – the present site of Grambling State University.

Since that time, the small school, started by black farmers and ministers, nurtured by Booker T. Washington’s student Charles P. Adams, has evolved into a renowned institution with more than 5,000 students. In its early years, the school catered to students primarily from surrounding parishes. I know of several families who moved here, some as early as the 1920s, so their children would be close to a school. Schools for blacks back then were rare in most rural areas of the south. Now, more than 40 percent of its students are from other states and around the world.

In 1941, two events would put the school on a path to world fame: A four-year curriculum was instituted and legendary coach Eddie G. Robinson was hired. Robinson immediately went into the surrounding communities recruiting talent for his football team. One of his new recruits was my uncle Elmo Younger. A knee injury would sideline Uncle Elmo after the first year, but a few years later his first cousin Paul “Tank” Younger would join the team. Cousin Paul would go on to propel the name Grambling into the history books when in 1949 he became the first player from a black college to play in the National Football League and later the first black front office executive in the NFL.

Thus began the storied legend of Coach Eddie G. Robinson. For 57 seasons, he fielded competitive football teams to earn an unprecedented career 408 college football victories to set a NCAA record for Division I wins. These and other achievements are memorialized in a museum bearing his name on the campus of Grambling State University.

The Eddie G. Robinson Museum

The museum is now housed in the former Women’s Memorial Gymnasium, which underwent a major renovation. The free, 9,000-square-foot museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and contains videos and interactive exhibits. Be sure to stop by the Pro Room, which highlights the more than 300 players who went on to play professional football under the tutelage of Coach Robinson.

GSU Founder’s Home and GSU Hall of Fame

Charles Phillip Adams and his wife Martha raised many of their six children in this house, built following his retirement in 1936. Some of the land served as the nucleus for one of the original communities that would become the town of Grambling. The Adams family donated the house to a university foundation in 1979. Listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the house has been restored to its 1930s charm, when it served as the Adams’ retirement residence. To arrange a tour, call three days in advance at 318-274-6404 in Institutional Advancement at GSU.

Other African-American cultural attractions in Grambling

Department of Art Gallery Dunbar Hall, Grambling State University The Art Department at GSU operates an art gallery where student and professional artists exhibit their work. Call 318-274-2274 for their latest exhibit.

Please visit these other important spots along the North Louisiana African American Heritage Trail:

Hermione Museum

Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Museum

Southern University Museum of Art/Multicultural Center of the South