The campus looking south across the harbor of Hampton Roads was founded on the grounds of "Little Scotland", a former plantation in Elizabeth City County not far from Fortress Monroe and the Grand Contraband Camp that gathered nearby. These facilities represented freedom to former slaves, who sought refuge with Union forces during the first year of the war.
The American Missionary Association (AMA) responded in 1861 to the former slaves' need for education by hiring its first teacher, Mary Smith Peake, who had secretly been teaching slaves and free blacks in the area despite the state's prohibition in law. She first taught for the AMA on September 17, 1861 and was said to gather her pupils under a large oak. After the tree was the site of the first reading in the former Confederate states of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it was called the Emancipation Oak. The tree, now a symbol of the university and of the city, is part of the National Historic Landmark District at Hampton University.
The Hampton Agricultural and Industrial School, later called the Hampton Institute, was founded in 1868 after the war by the biracial leadership of the AMA, who were chiefly Congregational and Presbyterian ministers. It was first led by former Union General Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Among the school's famous alumni is Dr. Booker T. Washington, an educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute, another college supported by the AMA.
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Union-held Fortress Monroe in southeastern Virginia at the mouth of Hampton Roads became a gathering point and safe haven of sorts for fugitive slaves. The commander, General Benjamin F. Butler, determined they were "contraband of war", to protect them from being returned to slaveholders, who clamored to reclaim them. As numerous individuals sought freedom behind Union lines, the Army arranged for the construction of the Grand Contraband Camp nearby, from materials reclaimed from the ruins of Hampton, which had been burned by the retreating Confederate Army. This area was later called "Slabtown."
Hampton University traces its roots to the work of Mary S. Peake, which began in 1861 with outdoor classes which she taught under the landmark Emancipation Oak in the nearby area of Elizabeth City County. The newly issued Emancipation Proclamation was first read to a gathering under the historic tree there in 1863.
After the War, a normal school ("normal" meaning to establish standards or norms while educating teachers) was formalized in 1868, with former Union brevet Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893) as its first principal. The new school was established on the grounds of a former plantation named "Little Scotland", which had a view of Hampton Roads. The original school buildings fronted the Hampton River. Legally chartered in 1870 as a land grant school,it was first known as "Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute."
Typical of historically black colleges, Hampton received much of its financial support in the years following the Civil War from the American Missionary Association (whose black and white leaders represented the Congregational and Presbyterian churches), other church groups and former officers and soldiers of the Union Army. One of the many Civil War veterans who gave substantial sums to the school was General William Jackson Palmer, a Union cavalry commander from Philadelphia. He later built the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, and founded Colorado Springs, Colorado. As the Civil War began in 1861, although his Quaker upbringing made Palmer abhor violence, his passion to see the slaves freed compelled him to enter the war. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in 1894. (The current Palmer Hall on the campus is named in his honor.)
Unlike the wealthy Palmer, Sam Armstrong was the son of a missionary to the Sandwich Islands (which later became the U.S. state of Hawaii). He also had dreams for the betterment of the freedmen. He patterned his new school after the model of his father, who had overseen the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic to the Polynesians. He wanted to teach the skills necessary for blacks to be self-supporting in the impoverished South. Under his guidance, a Hampton-style education became well known as an education that combined cultural uplift with moral and manual training. Armstrong said it was an education that encompassed "the head, the heart, and the hands."
At the close of its first decade, the school reported a total admission in the ten years of 927 students, with 277 graduates, all but 17 of whom had become teachers. Many of them had bought land and established themselves in homes; many were farming as well as teaching; some had gone into business. Only a very small proportion failed to do well. By another 10 years, there had been over 600 graduates. In 1888, of the 537 still alive, three-fourths were teaching, and about half as many undergraduates were also teaching. It was estimated that 15,000 children in community schools were being taught by Hampton's students and alumni that year.
Among Hampton's earliest students was Booker T. Washington, who arrived from West Virginia in 1872 at the age of 16. He worked his way through Hampton, and then went on to attend Wayland Seminary in Washington D.C. After graduation, he returned to Hampton and became a teacher. Upon recommendation of Sam Armstrong to founder Lewis Adams and others, in 1881, Washington was sent to Alabama at age 25 to head another new normal school. This new Institution eventually became Tuskegee University. Embracing much of Armstrong's philosophy, Washington built Tuskegee into a substantial school and became nationally famous as an educator, orator, and fund-raiser as well. He collaborated with the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in the early 20th century to create a model for rural black schools - Rosenwald established a fund that matched monies raised by communities to build more than 5,000 schools for rural black children, mostly in the South. Washington recruited his Hampton classmate (1875), Charles W. Greene to the work at Tuskegee in 1888 by founding the Agriculture department.
In 1878, Hampton established a formal education program for Native Americans. In 1875 at the end of the American Indian Wars, the United States Army sent seventy-two warriors from the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche and Caddo Nations, to imprisonment and exile in St. Augustine, Florida. Essentially they were considered hostages to persuade their peoples in the West to keep peace. Richard Henry Pratt supervised them at Fort Marion and began to arrange for their education in the English language and American culture. Numerous visitors to St. Augustine from the North became interested in their cases and volunteered as teachers. They also provided them with art supplies, and some of the resulting works (including by David Pendleton Oakerhater) are held by the Smithsonian Institution. At the end of the warriors' incarceration, Pratt convinced seventeen to enroll at Hampton Institute for a fuller education. (Later Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School based on the same philosophy of education and assimilation). Altogether, seventy Native Americans, young men and women from various tribes, mostly from the Plains rather than the acculturated tribes that had occupied Virginia, joined that first class. Because Virginia's aristocrats sometimes boasted of their Native American heritage through Pocahontas, it was hoped that the Native American students would help locals to accept the university's black students. The black students were also supposed to "civilize" the Native American students to current American society, and the Native Americans to "uplift the Negro[es]."
The program died in 1923, in the face of growing controversy over racial mingling. Native Americans stopped sending their boys to the school after some employers fired Native American men because they had been educated with blacks. The program's final director resigned because she could not prevent "amalgamation" between the Native American girls and black boys.
Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute became simply Hampton Institute in 1930. In 1931 the George P. Phenix School for all age groups was opened there under principal Ian Ross. A new nurses' training school was attached to the Dixie Hospital, with Nina Gage as director. With the addition of departments and graduate programs, it was accredited as Hampton University in 1984. Originally located in Elizabeth City County, it was long-located in the Town of Phoebus, incorporated in 1900. Phoebus and Elizabeth City County were consolidated with the neighboring City of Hampton to form a much larger independent city in 1952. The City of Hampton uses the Emancipation Oak on its official seal. From 1960 to 1970, noted diplomat and educator Jerome H. Holland was president of the Hampton Institute.
The campus contains several buildings that contribute to its National Historic Landmark district: Virginia-Cleveland Hall (freshman female dormitory, as well as former home to the school's two cafeterias), Wigwam building (home to administrative offices), Academy Building (administrative offices), Memorial Chapel (religious services) and the President's Mansion House.
The original High School on the campus became Phenix Hall when Hampton City Public Schools opened a new Phenix High School in 1959. Phenix Hall was damaged in a minor fire on June 12, 2008.
The Hampton University Museum was founded in 1868 and is the nation's oldest African-American museum. The museum contains over 9,000 pieces, some of which are highly acclaimed.
Hampton University is home to 16 research centers.
The four libraries on campus are the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library (main library), William H. Moses Jr. Architecture Library, the Music Library, and the Nursing Library.
The Emancipation Oak was cited by the National Geographic Society as one of the 10 great trees in the world.
The waterfront campus is settled near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
A 15-acre (61,000 m2) portion of the campus along the Hampton River, including many of the older buildings, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark District. Buildings included are:Mansion House, original plantation residence of Little Scotland
Virginia Hall built in 1873
Marquand Memorial Chapel, a Romanesque Revival red brick chapel with a 150-foot (46 m) tower
In addition, Cleveland Hall, Ogden, and the Administration building are also included in the district.
The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
As reported by the university in 2015, nearly two-thirds of the student body is female, and the other third male. Approximately 90% of the population identifies as Black, and only 32% are Virginia residents.
Hampton University has 11 accredited schools and colleges.
As of 2015, Hampton offers 48 baccalaureate programs, 23 master's programs, 8 doctoral programs, 2 professional programs, and 8 associate/certificate programs.
Hampton University consistently ranks among the top three HBCUs in the nation.
The Freddye T. Davy Honors College offers special learning opportunities and privileges to undergraduate students who have completed at least 12 credit hours with at least a 3.25 cumulative GPA. To join the honors college students must formally accept an invitation given by the college or directly apply for admissions into the college.
Hampton's student to faculty ratio is 10 to 1, which is better than the national university average of 18 to 1.
Hampton is the first and only HBCU to have 100% control of a NASA Mission.
The Alumni Factor named Hampton one of the seven best colleges in Virginia.
Hampton University is classified as a selective institution, offering admissions to approximately half of all applicants.
Hampton's colors are blue and white, and their nickname is "The Pirates". Hampton sports teams participate in NCAA Division I (FCS for football) in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. They joined this in 1995 upon leaving the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, an NCAA Division II conference, of which they were a founding member. Since joining, Hampton has won MEAC titles in many sports, including football, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's track, and men's and women's tennis.
In 2016, Hampton became the first and only HBCU to field a Division I men's lacrosse team. ESPN held a broadcast on campus preceding the inaugural game in Armstrong Stadium.
Hampton is the only HBCU with a competitive sailing team.
In 2001, the Hampton basketball team won its first NCAA Tournament game, when they beat Iowa State 58–57, in one of the largest upsets of all time. They were only the fourth fifteen-seed to upset a two-seed in the tournament's history. They returned to the tournament a year later, as well as in 2006, 2011, 2015 and 2016, having won their conference basketball tournament. Their NCAA tournament record is 2-6, including the play-in game.
The "Lady Pirates" basketball team has seen great success as well, and made trips to the NCAA tournament in 2000, 2003, 2004, and from 2010-2014. In 1988, as a Division II school, the Lady Pirates won the NCAA Women's Division II Basketball Championship, defeating West Texas State. In 2011, as a number-13 seed, the Lady Pirates nearly upset Kentucky, but fell in overtime, 66-62. In 2015, the Lady Pirates played in the Women's NIT, where they defeated Drexel 45-42 in the opening round. However, in the second round, the team lost to West Virginia 57-39.
The Pirates won their conference title in football in 1997, shared the title 1998 and 2004, and won it again outright in 2005 and 2006. From 2004 to 2006, the team won three MEAC Championships and three SBN-Black College National Championships, and was ranked in the Division I FCS top 25 poll each year. The Pirates also sent five players to the NFL Combine in 2007, the most out of any FCS subdivision school for that year. They have also been dominant in tennis winning the MEAC from 1996–1999, 2001-2003 and 2007 for the men, and 1998 and 2002-2004 for the women.
Major rivals include Norfolk State University, located across Hampton Roads in downtown Norfolk, and Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Pirate athletics are supported by a plethora of groups, including "The Force" Marching Band. The marching band has appeared at several notable performances, including a Barack Obama Presidential Inauguration parade in Washington, DC. "The Force" was chosen out of a large pool of applicants to participate in the parade as the representative for the state of Virginia. "The Force" is complemented by the "Ebony Fire" all-female dance team.