Miami University celebrated its 211th “birthday” on Monday, February 17. Today, it’s best known for its picturesque campus, strong undergraduate teaching and party scene.
But, Miami also has a long, fascinating history that spans three centuries and includes more than 200,000 alumni.
The state of Ohio chartered Miami on Feb. 17, 1809, making it the second-oldest university in Ohio and the tenth-oldest public university in the United States.
Miami was located in a then-unincorporated section of southwestern Ohio, the Village of Oxford, which was laid out in 1810, and settled the following year. The city was incorporated in 1830. Contrary to popular belief, Miami did not draw its name from the Myaamia Tribe (now known as the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma) — the tribe didn’t reside on the site of the university at the time of its founding but they lived near this and other areas of the Great Lakes region prior to their removal in 1846.
Though Miami was chartered in 1809, classes weren’t held until construction of the first academic building — Franklin Hall — was completed in 1824. Miami’s first students paid $93 in tuition and fees for the entire academic year, which is equivalent to $1428.87 in 2019.
In 1826, the Literary Focus, the first student-produced periodical at Miami, was established. An early predecessor to The Miami Student, the Focus staff aimed to “produce a magazine of education value for themselves and the community,” wrote former Miami professor Walter Havighurst.
Alpha Delta Phi, the first fraternity founded at Miami, was established in 1833. Five other Greek organizations — Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, Delta Zeta and Phi Kappa Tau were subsequently founded between 1839 and 1906. Besides Phi Kappa Tau, all of these organizations still have active chapters at Miami.
Following the Civil War, Miami suffered serious financial issues, mainly due to low enrollment. In 1873, with enrollment dropping to 87 students, the Board of Trustees elected to temporarily close the university.
Twelve years later, Miami opened its campus once again — this time, for good.
Like most other American universities in the 19th century, Miami’s early student body was composed of only white men.
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In 1887, shortly after Miami reopened, the first five female students were admitted. These women, who were designated as “special students” by the Trustees, were joined by 17 more in 1891.
Though female enrollment gradually climbed, Miami remained predominantly male. However, Western College for Women — established in 1853 as the Western Female Seminary — stood directly next to Miami on what is now Western Campus.
Enrollment of students of color was also low, but not nonexistent. Earl Kelley, the first black student at Miami, enrolled in 1902 and graduated in 1910. The first female black student was Nellie Craig, who enrolled in 1903 and graduated in 1905.
Despite Miami’s reputation for being predominantly white (which remains true today), the university did play a minor role in the Civil Rights Movement.
In June 1964, Western College held training sessions for Freedom Summer participants. Freedom Summer was an initiative in which young people traveled to Mississippi and attempted to register people of color to vote.
In the training sessions, participants learned a variety of skills — from actually registering people to defending themselves against angry mobs.
Though this training technically occurred at Western College, Miami now claims it as its own history since it merged with Western in 1974.
For decades, Miami’s athletic teams didn’t have an official name — instead, they used casual nicknames like the “Miami Boys.” By the early 1930s, however, a lasting nickname was established — the Redskins.
This nickname stood relatively unchallenged for decades, largely because Miami hardly had any relationship with the Myaamia tribe.
However, this changed in 1972, when then-chief Forest Olds visited Miami for the first time. This visit sparked a connection between the tribe and the university that gradually evolved over the following decades.
Following Olds’ visit, the university asked the Miami Tribe for its support in using the Redskins as its athletic mascot, and the tribe accepted.
But, in 1996, the tribe rescinded its support for the mascot, and Miami elected to change its athletic nickname to the RedHawks.
This change was a symbol of the relationship between the tribe and the university — the “RedHawks” mascot was inspired by the red-tailed hawk, which is indigenous to both Ohio and Oklahoma, where the Miami Tribe is currently headquartered.
The enrollment of the first three Myaamia students in 1991 strengthened this relationship. Today, around 30 tribe members enroll at Miami each year. These students take several special classes on Myaamia language and culture and receive a tuition waiver through the Myaamia Heritage Award Program.
In 2001, the Myaamia Project, which aims to revitalize Myaamia language and culture through research, was founded. The project evolved into the Myaamia Center, which is located in Bonham House on Miami’s campus and staffed by over a dozen people, including members of the tribe.
In 2017, the Myaamia Heritage Logo, which symbolizes the continued collaboration between the Miami Tribe and Miami University, was unveiled. The logo consists of traditional Myaamia colors and motifs and is printed on many pieces of Heritage Collection apparel, which celebrates the relationship between the university and the tribe.
The rapidly-evolving relationship between Miami University and the Miami Tribe is characterized by both entities with the Myaamia word neepwaantiinki — learning from each other.
Today, Miami boasts nearly 20,000 students — the 87 total students enrolled in 1873 could easily fit in a single lecture hall on today’s campus.
Nearly a quarter of Miami students are affiliated with one of the 50-plus Greek organizations on campus. Though some organizations have been the subject of recent controversy, the Greek community raised a total of $87,263.14 in philanthropy money during the 2018-2019 academic year.
Miami is still predominantly white, but, from its relationship with the Miami Tribe to its efforts to commemorate its activist history, the university has made an effort to recognize the diversity that has made its rich history possible.
Correction: An earlier version of this article did not specify that Oxford has been a city since 1810 and settled the following year.