As president of Tillotson College (later Huston-Tillotson) in Austin from 1930 to 1944, Virginia-born Mary Elizabeth Branch rescued the school from near ruin and turned it into one earning an "A" rating and accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (SACSS). The daughter of former slaves, Branch attended the normal department of Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia, and taught there for 20 years. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1922 and earned a master's degree there in 1925. From 1928 to 1930, she was dean of women at Vashon High School in St. Louis, then the largest school for black women in the U.S.
When Branch took over the reins of Tillotson, the school suffered from a small enrollment, dilapidated buildings, and an inadequate library. Within five years, she had greatly increased its enrollment, its library, and its prestige. At the time of her death, she was the only black female president of a senior college accredited by the SACSS. She was also the first woman to head an accredited college in Texas.
She was a leader of the Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and one of two female members of Texas' Negro Advisory Board to the National Youth Administration. Under her leadership, Tillotson was among the first schools to join the United Negro College Fund, which Branch helped establish. Virginia State College and Howard University each granted her honorary doctorate degrees.
Written by Nancy Baker Jones
Read by Elizabeth Muñoz
Mary Elizabeth Branch was born the child of former slaves in 1881. By 1930, she was the president of Tillotson College in Austin, having served decades as an accomplished educator. The Tillotson campus was badly in need of improvement when Branch arrived. On an early visit, she said she walked past “the pitiful remnants of a fence” on a path so overgrown that she startled a wild fox. Over the next 14 years, Branch successfully transformed Tillotson from a women’s junior college into a 4-year, co-educational undergraduate school with an “A” rating from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, becoming in the process the only African American female president of such an institution.
To re-create Tillotson, President Branch constructed new buildings, renovated old ones, expanded the library, doubled the size of the faculty, and instituted more rigorous hiring credentials. She also increased enrollment dramatically by recruiting widely for students and offering scholarships.
Originally an elementary school teacher and college instructor from Virginia, Branch attended the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and finally the University of Chicago, where she started a Ph.D. program. Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the Negro Advisory Board of the National Youth Administration during the Depression. She was also president of the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and helped establish the United Negro College Fund. She died in Baltimore in 1944.
Brown, Olive D. and Michael R. Heintze, "BRANCH, MARY ELIZABETH," Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Pitre, Merline. “At the Crossroads: Black Texas Women, 1930-1954,” in Bruce Glasrud and Merline Pitre, Black Women in Texas History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
Winegarten, Ruthe. Black Texas Women:150 Years of Trial and Triumph (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Biography Source Information
Biographies are reprinted from the Foundation for Women’s Resources (now Women’s Resources), Dallas, Texas. They originally appeared in "From Gutsy Mavericks to Quiet Heroes: True Tales of Texas Women," video study guide, Austin: The Foundation for Women's Resources, 1997. Death dates have been added where needed.
Audio Source Information
Our project, "Texas Women's History Moments," received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. The audio clips were broadcast on KUT radio from 2011-2016 during Women’s History Month.