William Hooper Councill was an educator, lawyer, minister, politician, and newspaper editor. He is most recognized for being the founder, president of Huntsville Normal School in Alabama. The school was the state’s first historically black college or university (HBCU) in Huntsville, Alabama.
Councill was born on July 12, 1849, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to enslaved parents William and Mary Jane Councill; his father escaped slavery but was unable to gain freedom for his family. In 1857, He, along with his mother and younger brother were sold to slave traders at a Richmond, Virginia, slave market and brought to north Alabama and sold to David C. Humphreys, a prominent Huntsville judge, lawyer, and cotton planter. The sale took place on the auction block at the Green Bottom Inn, a Huntsville hotel that would later become part of the campus of AAMU.
Councill worked in the cotton fields until the start of the Civil War, he escaped to freedom through the Confederate lines to Tennessee.
Years later, Councill returned to Alabama to attend a school for freedmen that had been started by Quakers in 1865. It was the only formal education Councill received. He worked and studied for three years before graduating in 1867.
After completing his education, he worked as a teacher in the black public schools in Alabama while working at night as a porter in hotels and restaurants. In 1869, at the age of 22, he opened Lincoln School in Huntsville for black children. In addition to his teaching duties, he attended night school where he studied chemistry, mathematics, law, and Latin. Councill was admitted to the Alabama bar but he never practiced law in the state.
He extended his work into politics and he became the became the chief enrolling clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives between 1872 and 1874. He also served as secretary of a national civil rights convention in 1873.
In 1875, the Alabama legislature appointed 26-year-old Councill as the first principal of the State Colored Normal School at Huntsville, which is now known as Alabama A&M University. The Colored Normal School would train black teachers to work in Alabama’s segregated school system. By the mid-1880s, it rivaled Tuskegee Institute in central Alabama as a vocational-industrial training facility.
Councill founded the Huntsville Herald in 1877, which he published and edited until 1884. In 1887, William Hooper Councill became a nationwide figure when he filed a lawsuit with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for being ejected from a first-class coach while traveling on an Alabama railroad. That action later prompted his superiors to relieve him of his duties as president of the State Normal School, only to reappoint him in 1888. Councill died at the age of 61 in 1909.