This downtown HBCU (Historically Black College and University), just under three miles west of the Gateway Arch, was historically two separate, segregated teachers’ colleges. The university originates with the establishment in 1857 of the first normal school, or public teachers college, west of the Mississippi River. That school grew to become Harris Teachers College, which began offering a four-year bachelor’s degree program in education in 1920. Another normal school was established to educate Black teachers in 1890 and named Stowe Teachers College, in honor of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1929. In 1954 the two colleges desegregated and merged to become Harris Teachers College, later renamed Harris Stowe State College. In 1963 the college moved into the historic Vashon High School building (now Dr. Henry Givens Jr. Administration Building), which opened in 1937 and is one of only a few remaining structures from Mill Creek Valley, a once-thriving Black neighborhood that was razed between 1955 and 1965. In the 1990s the college acquired and incorporated the Vashon Community Center (now Vashon Center), and in 2021 undertook a National Park Service-funded rehabilitation to equip the building to house the Don and Heide Wolff Jazz Institute and National Black Radio Hall of Fame.
Over time the campus grew to encompass the block roughly bounded by Olive Street, Ewing Avenue, Market Street, and Compton Avenue. Twin brick and concrete pillars topped with lights and spanned by an arched iron sign bearing the school’s name mark the entrance to the campus from Compton Avenue. The campus’ buildings are loosely arranged around a relatively flat, mostly treeless central lawn traversed by brick-edged linear concrete paths that are lined with historic light standards. Where paths intersect in front of the Administration Building, a paved circular plaza with a central sculpture, and benches around its northeast edge, offers space for congregation; in front of the residence halls, paths meet at a recessed circular plaza, with tiered amphitheater seating rising to the ground plane. Stars Park, home to the Negro Baseball League’s St. Louis Stars team from 1922 to 1931, is now used by Harris Stowe’s baseball team. The school eventually gained university status in 2005. The Vashon Community Center building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.