Dr. Robert Shaw Wilkinson was the much beloved president of what is now known as South Carolina State University. He served with distinction in that capacity from 1911 to 1932. He was regarded as the father of organized agricultural and vocational work for African-Americans in South Carolina.
Robert S. Wilkinson was born in 1865 in Charleston to Charles H. Wilkinson and Lavinia A. Robinson. His early education was obtained at Shaw Memorial School and the Avery Institute there. He received his bachelor’s and masters degrees from Oberlin College in Ohio, and his doctorate degree from Columbia University in New York.
After college Dr. Wilkinson first taught Greek and Latin at Simmons College in Kentucky. When the Colored, Normal, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina opened in Orangeburg in 1896, he came to teach Physics and Mathematics. In 1911 he became the second president there, a position he held until his death in 1932.
The academic programs were substantially upgraded during Dr. Wilkinson’s tenure. The area of agricultural education also made significant gains. In that era the college had several different areas of educational programs. The preparatory program was a four year high school program, the Normal Department offered a Licentiate of Instruction for future teachers, and the Agricultural and Mechanical College covered the rest of the college program. The physical plant was also greatly enhanced during Dr. Wilkinson’s presidency.
Dr. Wilkinson enjoyed a national reputation as an educator. He served as president of the Negro Land Grant College Association of the South, chairman of the Palmetto State Teachers’ Association Executive Committee, and secretary of the board of trustees of Voorhees Industrial School in Denmark. He was also a director of the Mutual Savings Bank of Charleston, and the Victory Savings Bank of Columbia.
Fraternally he was a Deputy Grand Master of the Masons, the Grand Master Exchequer for the Negro Knights of Pythias, and was a member of the Elks and the Odd Fellows.
Dr. Wilkinson and his wife founded St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and used their living room for its services the first ten years.
He married the former Marion Birnie, and they had four children, Dr. Robert S. Wilkinson, Dr. Frost B. Wilkinson, Helen W. Sheffield, and Lula Wilkinson. He died in 1932 as a result of pneumonia while still serving as president of South Carolina State University. As a fitting tribute for such an outstanding educator, the first African-American public high school in Orangeburg in 1937 was named Wilkinson High School.