In 1856, the Methodist Episcopal Church established Wilberforce University near Xenia, Ohio, to provide African Americans access to a college education. The university was the first private, historically black college formed in the United States. Its founders named the institution after William Wilberforce, a prominent eighteenth-century abolitionist. A number of African-American Ohioans attended the school during its early years. During the American Civil War, attendance declined as many students enlisted in the Union army. As a result of declining attendance, Wilberforce University closed in 1862.
In 1863, the African Methodist Episcopal Church acquired ownership of the university. Under the direction of Daniel Payne, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, John Mitchell, the principal of a school in Cincinnati, and James Shorter, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor from Zanesville, Ohio, Wilberforce reopened its doors. The institution operated as a private university serving the African-American community for the next twenty-four years. In 1887, the State of Ohio began to provide Wilberforce with state funds to help finance the institution. This brought to an end the university's exclusively private status. The state also helped the university create a Combined Normal and Industrial Department that eventually evolved into Central State University.
The Combined Normal and Industrial Department offered teacher training courses and technical education. Between 1887 and 1951, the program operated under the auspices of Wilberforce University, although it had its own board of trustees. For most of this era, students graduated with a two-year degree from the Combined Normal and Industrial Department. In 1941, the department became known as the College of Education and Industrial Arts and it began offering a four-year degree. By 1947, the college began to work towards a separation from Wilberforce and course offerings expanded to include the liberal arts. The state legislature voted to approve the creation of a separate institution in May 1951 and named it Central State College.
The Ohio legislature granted Central State university status in November 1965. For a brief time, the school offered a limited number of masters programs, but administrators chose to end the graduate offerings in 1969 because of limited financial resources and a desire to concentrate on undergraduate education. In 1974, Central State University faced a new challenge when approximately half of the campus was leveled by a tornado. Administrators used this destruction as an opportunity to create a campus that would offer a positive environment for student learning.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, Central State struggled with financial problems and issues associated with accreditation. The school has emerged from these challenges and it continues to have a strong commitment to African-American higher education in the twenty-first century. In addition, the institution has also started to recruit students from the growing Latino population in the United States.