In 1856, the Methodist Episcopal Church established Wilberforce University near Xenia, Ohio, to provide African American access to a college education. The university was the first private black college 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. 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 funds to help finance the institution, brought to an end the university's exclusively private status. The state also helped the university create a Normal and Industrial Department that eventually evolved into Central State University.
Wilberforce University has experienced steady growth throughout the twentieth century. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the institution built a new residence hall, a student health center, a recreation and sports facility, and an administrative center. The university offers more than twenty degree programs and has exchange programs with universities around the world. In 2003, enrollment was more than 1,200 students.