The History of the History Department

Kent State: The Early Years

Part 1: The “Roaring” 20s

By David Lein


Foreword: The following article is the first in a two-part series highlighting Kent State University’s early years. Much of this information is based on materials from Kent State University’s Special Collections library, although I’ve consulted several other texts as well, including Philip H. Schriver’s excellent book, titled The Years of Youth. This first article will focus on the courses offered by the Department of History during this period, as well as the professors who taught them. In addition, sections related to events that occurred at the university at-large, including student life, will be seen as well. My hope is that these articles will show students just how much blood, sweat, and tears were devoted into creating the university as it is known today. Without further ado, get ready to be transported back to the 1920s!

In the 1920s, Kent State, along with its history department, underwent a change for the better as the institution began to offer more diverse courses, culminating in the establishment of its first liberal arts college in 1929. On the college level, President John Edward McGilvrey's attempts to transform Kent State into a university had mixed results. McGilvrey earned plaudits during this period for his innovative series of summer “educational tours,” the introduction of correspondence courses, and the emergence of a student-led council known as the “Kent Student Council.” However, these and other innovations were largely overshadowed by a series of scandals aimed at McGilvrey, most notably his astonishing thirteen-year feud with William Oxley Thompson, the president of Ohio State University. His firing in 1926 caused the college to experience several years of instability before becoming stabilized once more with the hiring of James Ozro Engleman as the new president. Student life, on the other hand, mostly prospered during this period, though the start of the Great Depression in the late 20s dampened much of this enthusiasm. The history department during this period, on the other hand, was led by several faculty members, including Joseph E. Layton, Herman D. Byrne, and A. Sellew Roberts, while a variety of courses in American, English, and European history were offered as well.

Part 1 - The “History” of Kent’s History Department in the 1920s

Joseph E. Layton, head of Kent's History Department in 1915.
Figure 1: Joseph E. Layton, head of Kent's History Department, in 1915. Picture taken from Kent's 1915 Chestnut Burr -
Joseph E. Layton, head of Kent's History Department, in 1917. from Kent's 1917 Chestnut Burr
Figure 2: Joseph E. Layton, head of Kent's History Department, in 1917. Picture taken from Kent's 1917 Chesnut Burr -


Kent State was founded in 1910, but classes at the campus itself would not begin for another three years, in 1913 (Schriver, 41). That year, eleven faculty members were appointed, including Joseph E. Layton, who became the head of the history and government department, having previously “served as an assistant in the history department of Indiana University.” (Schriver, 44) Layton served in this role for nine years, at which time Herman D. Byrne succeeded him as department head in 1922. Byrne, like many other instructors during this period, held no Ph.D. degree, a trend that would continue throughout the majority of the 1920s until the ascendance of James Ozro Engleman as president in 1928, at which point more instructors with Ph.D.’s would begin to be hired (Schriver, 151). Byrne’s education was mostly “ho-hum,” having earned a Bachelor’s of Arts degree from the University of Indiana in 1917 and a Master’s of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in 1921; however, in 1937, Byrne earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence, which, combined with his appointment to the Ohio Senate a year earlier, allowed him to usher in a bill that authorized ‘“the Board of Trustees of Kent State University to construct and operate buildings as dormitories.’” (Schriver, 155) At that time, the Great Depression had caused an unofficial “building holiday” to occur, meaning that Kent was unable to procure any money for new buildings. Byrne’s bill, therefore, broke the “holiday” and allowed Kent to construct several new buildings, including a new dormitory named after President Engleman, Engleman Hall (Schriver, 155).

Herman D. Byrne, head of Kent's History Department (1922-1927), in 1923
Figure 3: Herman D. Byrne, head of Kent's History Department (1922-1927), in 1923. Picture taken from Kent's 1923 Chestnut Burr -
A. Sellew Roberts, head of Kent's History Department (1927-1958), in 1928.
Figure 4: A. Sellew Roberts, head of Kent’s History Department (1927-1958), in 1928. Picture taken from Kent’s 1928 Chestnut Burr -

Returning to the 1920s, Byrne’s ascent as department head was unique, insofar as Byrne originally joined Kent State as a lecturer for the extension program, which President McGilvrey began in 1912 (Schriver, 39). However, in the span of two years, Byrne was able to quickly climb the ladder and was promoted to head of the history department in 1922, which he led until 1927. Byrne’s tenure lasted through the entirety of President McGilvrey’s administration, which ended in 1926, and the administration of T. Howard Winters (January 1926–July 1926), along with the majority of David Allen Anderson’s administration (September 1926–April 1928). Though the latter two administrations saw chaos and strife emerge, as McGilvrey was well-loved by both students and faculty members, President Anderson’s role should not be diminished. This is because his tenure, while short, saw the appointment of the first faculty members with doctoral degrees to Kent State, including A. Sellew Roberts, who would become the new department head of history and social sciences in 1927 (Schriver, 110). Roberts’ resume featured a who’s who of prestigious universities, including Cornell University (Bachelor of Arts, 1910), the University of Chicago (Master of Arts, 1914), and Harvard University (Ph.D., 1922). Though a self-described “history buff,” Roberts was also interested in sports, and was instrumental in introducing wrestling as a sport offered at Kent State; his career as wrestling coach would last a little over two years, at which point Joseph W. Begala took over, leading the team to great success (Schriver, 149). Finally, Roberts appointment as department chair coincided with an influx of several new faculty members with impressive backgrounds, all of which will be discussed in the next article.

Part 2 - An Overview of the Historical Courses Offered in the 1920s

A sample of history courses a student could potentially take in the 1920s.
Figure 5: A sample of history courses a student could potentially take in the 1920s. Note that these classes are “diploma courses,” meaning that they counted toward a two-year diploma. Picture taken from 1920 Kent State Quarterly course catalog.

The history courses offered at Kent State during the 1920s ultimately reflected the changing perspectives of the institution as it transitioned from a “normal” college to a “regular” college. As mentioned previously, Kent State was founded in 1910 as a normal school, which originally called for “the provision of two-year diploma work for elementary school teachers.” (Schriver, 59) However, President McGilvrey always believed that Kent State had greater potential and even laid out a so-called "fifty-year plan,” which forecast a university with multiple different colleges (Schriver, 59). These plans were partially realized on June 5, 1915, when “the Board of Trustees agreed to a change in the name for the school to accord with McGilvrey’s stated ambition. The Kent State Normal School became the Kent State Normal College.” (Schriver, 59) While it may seem like a minor change, it did allow the newly formed college to become a “four-year degree-conferring institution for the training of high school instructors and administrators as well as elementary teachers.” (Schriver, 59) As such, it is no surprise, therefore, that many of the history courses in the 1920s dealt with teaching prospective students to eventually become teachers themselves.

The two classes that made up the “backbone” of the history department were known simply as History 11A and History 11B. These were the “basic” courses, which provided a general overview of important historical topics necessary for those wishing to pursue a teaching career. The two classes differed, however, in content, as History 11A was geared towards those who would be interested in teaching classes to elementary students, with topics focused mostly on European history, including the history of the Middle Ages and the history of Greece and Rome; History 11B, on the other hand, was focused more on those interested in teaching classes to junior high school students, with topics dealing mostly in American history, such as the American Revolution and the American Civil War. It is important to note, however, that both of these classes were categorized as “diploma courses,” meaning that they fell under the purview of the Junior College, which granted diplomas in two years, versus the four-year degree program, which also existed during this period. Like present-day associate degrees, the diploma program at Kent State in the 1920s also allowed students to continue their education if they so wished. The only other history class offered under the Junior College in the 1920s was History 12, which focused on the history of the state of Ohio, with topics such as the history of the Northwest Territory, Ohio’s admittance into the Union, and Ohio’s stance on slavery being discussed. The courses discussed hereafter were “degree courses,” which, after four years, would award a Bachelor of Science in Education.

Students wishing to seek a degree in education during the 1920s were allowed to choose history classes from three broad categories: European, English, and American history. Classes from the first category included History 21A (focused on the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire, and the Crusades); History 21B (focused on the Reformation, the reign of Louis XIV, the French Revolution, and Napoleon); and History 21C (focused on the Industrial Revolution in Europe, the unification of both Italy and Germany, European expansion in the 19th century, and the “War of Nations” [World War I]). Two other courses, known as History 24 and History 25, were also offered, but both required students to have previously taken History 21A-C. History 24 focused on topics such as the Protestant Revolt, comparisons between Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism, and the influence of the Reformation on colonial life in America; History 25, on the other hand, focused on topics such as the Old Regime in France, French expansion, and the Napoleonic Era.

Next, English history courses offered included History 22A (focused on Saxon-era England, the formation of a unified English nation, the Hundred Years War, and the Tudor Period); History 22B (focused on the Puritan Revolution, the Revolution of 1688, the formation of the early British Empire, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution); and History 22C (focused on England’s struggles against Napoleon, England’s relationship with both the American and French revolutions, and England's role in the “War of Nations” [World War I]). No more additional courses were taught under this category, but this was due to the unique structure of the classes, as a student was only permitted to enroll in History 22A if they had already taken History 21A-C. Similarly, History 22B required a student to have passed History 22A, and History 22C required a student to have passed 22B, and consequently, 22A.

Finally, American history courses offered included History 23A (focused on American colonization, the American Revolution, and the creation of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution); History 23B (focused on the War of 1812, the administration of Andrew Jackson, and developments during the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction Era); and History 23C (focused on the Industrial Revolution in America, women’s suffrage, progressive politics, and the “War of Nations” [World War I]). A fourth course, known as History 27, focused on the era of “Manifest Destiny” and its relation to slavery, though the class could not be taken unless a student had already taken History 23A-C. A fifth and final class, known as History 28, focused on historical developments related to American diplomacy, with topics such as diplomacy during the American Civil War, the Spanish War, and the Great War discussed.

Part 3 - New Developments in the late 1920s

More historical courses that 1920s students could take.
Figure 6: More historical courses that 1920s students could take. Note that these classes are considered “degree courses,” meaning that they counted toward a four-year degree. Picture taken from 1920 Kent State Quarterly course catalog.

For the majority of the 1920s, the history department at Kent State did not see the addition of any new courses beyond the initial ones outlined in the previous section, save for a pair of courses titled History 20A (focused on ancient Greece and other early empires) and History 20B (focused on the history of the Roman Empire). Other than these two courses, the only real “changes” that occurred during this period were the changing or combining of certain courses, such as History 11A and 11B being combined into one class, with the purpose of priming students for teaching both middle and junior high school students. There is no real evidence for why this was the case, though arguments could potentially be made that the dearth of classes stemmed from the fact that President McGilvrey was dealing with multiple issues outside of campus, which may have caused him to pay less attention to the school itself. In any case, this all changed in March 1929, when “the Emmons-Hanna bill was signed into law by Governor Myers Y. Cooper.” (Schriver, 119) This bill brought many important changes to both Kent State and Bowling Green, with both institutions becoming formally recognized as “‘state colleges.’” (Schriver, 119) While the previous name change in 1915 from “normal school” to “normal college” allowed Kent to grant bachelor’s degrees, the 1929 Emmons-Hanna bill codified this and, more importantly, “authorized … [the establishment of] courses leading to the degrees of bachelor of arts and bachelor of science.” (Schriver, 120) In other words, the dreams of the now-deposed McGilvrey were slowly coming to fruition: Kent State was getting a liberal arts college. 

It is for this reason, then, along with both newly-elected President Engleman’s edict of instilling more intellectualism into Kent and the appointment of A. Sellew Roberts as the new head of the history department, that in the final year of the 1920s, the history department established six new classes. The importance of these new classes cannot be overstated. For example, History 441, and its “sister” class, History 442, were two of the first history classes that broke away from the American/European/English dichotomy that had ruled over the history department since the beginning of the decade. Instead, both the Middle East and Asia were discussed, with History 441 focused on the rise of the Caliphate and the decline of the Byzantine Empire, while History 442 gave a broad survey of the histories of China, Japan, and India. The next three classes, History 446, 447, and 448, focused on European expansionism, beginning in the late 16th century, and moving all the way to the “present”; the last class, History 450, focused on the Reformation. Though these latter classes were not “unique” in the sense that aspects such as European expansionism and the Reformation were seen in earlier classes, both of these topics were not the “focal” point, so the fact that these new classes existed meant that they were considered important enough to be taught to students. New classes would continue to be added throughout the next decade, which will be examined in more detail in the


Even more historical courses that students could potentially take (1920s).
Figure 7: Even more historical courses that students could potentially take. Note that these classes are “rural school courses,” which were taught outside of the main campus, but still counted toward a four-year degree. Picture taken from 1920 Kent State Quarterly course catalog.
John Edward McGilvrey, president of Kent State (1911-1926), in 1915.
Figure 8: John Edward McGilvrey, president of Kent State (1911-1926), in 1915. Picture taken from Kent’s 1915 Chestnut Burr -

Part 4 - Kent State at Large in the 1920s: Leadership Woes

From Kent State’s establishment in 1910 through 1920, the institution remained fairly stable under the leadership of President John Edward McGilvrey. Yet, following the beginning of the new decade, President McGilvrey’s leadership began to show cracks due to multiple issues originating both internally and externally. McGilvrey’s first big test occurred in 1919, when a “rebellion” erupted after Peter W. Doyle, a farmer and one of the first trustees appointed by the governor in 1911 to the then-newly-created Kent State Board of Trustees, failed to get reappointed to the aforementioned board (Schriver, 29; 92). It is important to note that Doyle's prior appointment was merely a strategic one, as the nearby city of Hudson, where Doyle hailed from, was also in the running to potentially get a normal school built there, though both Kent and Bowling Green eventually prevailed (Schriver, 29). As such, once Kent was built, there was little need to keep Doyle around. Doyle felt otherwise, as he, along with five other Kent faculty members (Samuel L. Eby, John B. Faught, Lemuel A. Pittenger, Lewis S. Hopkins, and George E. Marker), then turned on McGilvrey and accused him of “misappropriation of funds, ... immoral conduct, ... and inefficiency.” (Schriver, 92) This infighting only ended in 1921, after the

John Edward McGilvrey, president of Kent State (1911-1926), in 1925.
Figure 9: John Edward McGilvrey, president of Kent State (1911-1926), in 1925. Picture taken from Kent’s 1925 Chestnut Burr -

state legislature returned mixed results regarding whether or not to fire McGilvrey, with the Kent Board of Trustees ultimately voting to retain McGilvrey (Schriver, 92). This was merely a taste for the real “war” that was later dubbed the “Credit War,” which saw McGilvrey go head-to-head with his “sworn nemesis,” William Oxley Thompson, the president of the Ohio State University. Though the two had grappled in preceding years, the aforementioned conflict erupted in 1923, when Thompson declared that “OSU would no longer accept any transfer credits from Kent.” (Hildebrand, 32) Thompson’s authority meant that other colleges and universities followed suit, and as such, Kent State quickly lost its hard-earned prestige.

Though McGilvrey ultimately “won” the war in 1925, when “Columbia University finally placed Kent on its ‘approved list,’” (Schriver, 91) he ultimately lost his leadership position in the following year. While McGilvrey was seemingly blindsided by this decision, having gone to Europe in December 1925 in order to secure a student exchange program with Cambridge University, the writing was on the wall as early as 1921. It was during that year that the governor of Ohio created a position known as “director of education,” with Vernon M. Riegel being its first appointee. Riegel and his assistant, T. Howard Winters, clashed numerous times with McGilvrey over issues such as mandated state examinations, yet it would be Riegel, working through Winters as his proxy, that would ultimately cause McGilvrey’s downfall. In January 1926, Winters released a damning report highlighting several “deficiencies” found at Kent, including freshman classes that were much too large, building repairs frequently interrupting classes, instructors speaking “too much,” and a curriculum Winters deemed “improper.” It is for these reasons that McGilvrey was ultimately fired, with Winters given the leadership of Kent as “acting president.” (Schriver, 95) In the first half of the decade, McGilvrey championed initiatives such as his summer “educational tours,” which saw tours throughout the United States and Canada, and correspondence courses, which allowed instructors to teach special classes not offered at Kent during this time while also accommodating those who lived in rural areas. Now in the second half of the decade, the man once known as the “Meiklejohn of the West” had instead become a pariah, and Kent State would suffer due to these transgressions.

T. Howard Winters, Kent's "acting president" (January 1926-July 1926), in 1926.
Figure 10: T. Howard Winters, Kent’s “acting president” (January 1926–July 1926), in 1926. Picture taken from Kent’s 1926 Chestnut Burr -

T. Howard Winters reign as “acting president” of Kent State began rather acrimoniously, as many students, still grieving the loss of their beloved president, were planning to throw rotten eggs at Winters. However, no eggs were forthcoming, even after Winters declared that “‘the plans of Dr. McGilvery for making the institution a college, with power to confer college degrees, would be forgotten and the name of ‘normal school’ be adhered to hereafter.’” (Schriver, 96) From there, Winters’ policies got worse, as he raised student registration fees to $10.00 each quarter and mandated complex new entrance exams for incoming freshman students (Schriver, 97). One of the few “good” things to happen during Winters’ administration, however, was that Ohio State  once again began accepting Kent credits in May 1926 (Schriver, 98). However, Winters’ administration came crashing down soon after the appearance of the Searchlight, a new Kent State newspaper, which routinely criticized Winters for his policies. This was most notably seen in the July 15th issue, which was critical of the aforementioned entrance examinations (Schriver, 101). While Winters was successful in silencing the newspaper, a new one soon sprung up, known as the Kent Stater, but by that point, Winters was close to having a mental breakdown (Schriver, 102-103). The Board of Trustees then appointed Dr. David Allen Anderson as the new “permanent” president of Kent State in September 1926 (Schriver, 103).

David Allen Anderson, president of Kent State (1926-1928), in 1928.
Figure 11: David Allen Anderson, president of Kent State (1926-1928), in 1928. Picture taken from Kent’s 1928 Chestnut Burr -

Anderson’s administration, though lasting longer than Winters’, still experienced a multitude of issues. Much of this emanated from a rift that developed between two prominent members of the Kent Board of Trustees: David Ladd Rockwell and William A. Cluff (Schriver, 105). Though the two men had worked together harmoniously, Anderson’s appointment caused issues, leading to Cluff’s insistence that State Examiner Charles Miller conduct an audit of Kent State (Schriver, 105-106). Miller ultimately found several “inaccuracies,” the largest being that Anderson had purchased “nearly $4,000 of furnishings for the presidential suite in Moulton Hall.” (Schriver, 106) Nothing ever came from this, however, as Rockwell personally appealed to the governor, who announced that “all difficulties had been ironed out” (Schriver, 106). Anderson’s biggest mistake, though, was the firing of several faculty members, including Herman D. Byrne, the head of the history department, and Alex Whyte, the plant superintendent (Schriver, 107-108). It was the latter firing that caused the biggest upset among both the students and the Board of Trustees, who became tired of Anderson’s “antics” and forced him to resign from the position by June 1928 (Schriver, 108). While Anderson was as ineffective in leading Kent as was his predecessor, Anderson was instrumental in hiring new faculty members who held Ph.Ds, including A. Sellew Roberts, the new head of the history department, as mentioned previously. In addition, Anderson also “installed a trained registrar (John L. Blair) for the first time in the school’s history; initiated a public recognition of the high scholarship of individuals and organizations that would ultimately lead to an annual ‘Scholarship Day’; and brought the long idle college farm again under cultivation." (Schriver, 110).

James Ozro Engleman, president of Kent State (1928-1938), in 1929.
Figure 12: James Ozro Engleman, president of Kent State (1928-1938), in 1929. Picture taken from Kent’s 1929 Chestnut Burr -

In March 1928, President Anderson “publicly announced his resignation from Kent to accept the presidency of the Northern State Teachers’ College and Industrial School at Aberdeen, South Dakota.” (Schriver, 112) Only ten days later, in April, Dr. James Ozro Engleman was named the new president of Kent (Schriver, 112). Engleman’s administration was marked by a new period of stability, made clearer by the fact that previous “antagonists” of Kent, including Vernon M. Riegel, William A. Cluff, and David Ladd Rockwell, all left their respective positions, being replaced by friends or supporters of the new president of Kent (Schriver, 114-115). Engleman’s best-known contribution during this period was the establishment of Kent State’s first liberal arts college, courtesy of the Emmons-Hanna Act. While the bill originally called for Kent State to become a full-fledged university, Engleman only endorsed the creation of a liberal arts college and nothing more beyond that, preferring “to see Kent remain as a teachers’ college.” (Schriver, 118) Even after the bill was amended to remove the word “university,” Engleman still held his doubts, yet the bill was ultimately passed and signed into law on March 28, 1929 (Schriver, 119). President Engleman’s tenure continued well into the 1930s, which will be further explored in an upcoming article. 

Part 5 - Kent State at Large in the 1920s: Student Life

Members of Kent's "Women League" in 1930.
Figure 13: Members of Kent’s “Women League” in 1930. Dean of Women Blanche A. Verder is seen sitting at the far left. Picture taken from Kent’s 1930 Chestnut Burr -
Kent's wrestling team in 1929.
Figure 14: Kent’s wrestling team in 1929. The team’s inaugural coach, A. Sellew Roberts, who also lead the history department during the same period, is seen standing at the far right. Picture taken from Kent’s 1929 Chestnut Burr -

A that may surprise many is that student life during the majority of the 1920s at Kent State was dominated by female students. Due to this, sports were almost nonexistent during this period, and even once enough men had joined the college, Kent’s record was near-abysmal, with its first victory only occurring in 1925 (Schriver, 73). Both baseball and basketball were also played by students during this time, and while both of these teams lost many games, the latter team did win a championship in 1924 (Schriver, 70). Outside of sports, a Woman’s League was also created in 1915, “with every woman student automatically a member;” (Schriver, 74) a male organization, known as the Men’s Union, “was founded in 1924 — when there were finally enough men to unite.” (Schriver, 74) Much of campus life was also affected by the fact that “the nation’s first sexual revolution began registering after the end of World War I.” (Hildebrand, 30) Much of this was witnessed by Zoe Bayliss, Kent State’s second dean of women, who saw women students “wearing their skirts shorter and shorter and bobbing their hair, painting their faces, smoking cigarettes, and riding, unescorted, in motorcars driven by men.” (Hildebrand, 30) Unable to tame these “wild” women, Bayliss left her post after a few years, at which point Blanche A. Verder became the new dean of women. Unlike Bayliss, Verder was able to successfully control her students, imposing rules such as restricting “automobile riding” to daylight hours only and only allowing “‘Gentlemen callers’ ... [to] be entertained in the parlors until 9:30 on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings, and until 10 on Fridays and Saturdays.” (Schriver, 79) Other events, such as Homecoming and “Campus Days,” (Schriver, 80) allowed students to relax and socialize. With the Great Depression beginning in 1929, however, life at Kent State would undergo a dramatic change in the following decade.


To be continued in…

Kent State: The Early Years

Part 2: The “Depressing” 30s