LeMoyne-Owen College was created by a 1968 merger combining two Historically Black Colleges located in Memphis, Tennessee. But its true origin would predate this merger by more than a century. The four-year private college takes its name and its esteem from a fascinating but lesser known figure in American history. Francis Julius LeMoyne lived, prospered and died in the town of Washington, Pennsylvania. But his legacy is considerable in Memphis, Tennessee.
Francis Julius came into the world in 1798, attended Washington and Jefferson College, and subsequently achieved personal success as a physician. Obviously, he did a whole bunch of other stuff in between, but the point is, he was successful. Still, his greatest contributions would all come much later in life. Indeed, LeMoyne left a distinguished mark on history as a passionate abolitionist. It is fitting, then, that his name would become affiliated in perpetuity with a college forged in the fires of Civil War.
In 1862, Union troops came to occupy Memphis. Upon doing so, they dispatched the American Missionary Association (AMA) to establish a number of elementary schools for free blacks and escaped slaves. That year, the school that would become LeMoyne was established for this purpose.
Naturally, its mission placed it directly in the crosshairs when race riots engulfed Memphis in 1866. The school was destroyed. Though it would be rebuilt the following year, the true turning point in its history came in 1870 when the doctor from Washington, PA elected to make a donation of $20,000. LeMoyne’s act of charity made possible the establishment of LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School. And just in case that wasn’t enough to earn him the honor of having a school named for him, Francis gifted the campus its elegant Hutchress striking tower clock upon making his first visit in 1871.
Lest you should think the story ends there, LeMoyne’s most widely proliferated contribution to history was yet to come. Indeed, shortly after LeMoyne lent his name to a college, he returned home to Washington, PA and, as a prominent local citizen, became increasingly concerned that decomposing bodies buried in the soil were tainting the water supply and contributing to illness. (Bet you didn’t know I was going to say that.)
Being the industrious man he was, LeMoyne did more than just buying a Brita water filter and writing concerned letters to his local councilman. Instead, taking a cue from a practice more regularly employed in Europe, LeMoyne established the very first crematorium in America! (Sorry for the exclamation point. In retrospect, and given the subject matter, the enthusiastic punctuation seems sort of inappropriate.)
Nonetheless, it was quite the accomplishment. LeMoyne built the facility on his own property, on a spot known cheerfully to locals as Gallow’s Hill. The crematory would perform its first cremation in 1876, and an additional forty cremations over the next quarter century before shuttering its facilities in 1901.
LeMoyne would himself soon be the beneficiary of his own innovation. He became only the third person to pass through the Gallow’s Hill crematorium when, in 1879 he passed at the age of eighty-one. If you’d like to learn more about Francis Julius LeMoyne, go visit the public library in Washington, Pennsylvania . . . which he also founded.
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