Benedict College, founded in 1870 by the American Baptist Home Mission Society to educate freedmen and their descendants, was originally called Benedict Institute. It was named for Stephen and Bathsheba Benedict of Rhode Island, whose bequest created the school. Mrs. Benedict donated money to buy land in Columbia for it. The institute was chartered as Benedict College in 1894. Its early presidents were all white Baptist ministers from the North.
By the time Dr. J.J. Starks became Benedict College's first black president in 1930, its curriculum included primary and secondary courses, college ~ level liberal arts courses, and courses in theology, nursing, and teaching. This curriculum was streamlined in the 1930s to emphasize the liberal arts and theology. Benedict College was also a significant center for civil rights activities in Columbia from the 1930s through the 1960s.