The April 3, 1974 tornado: a deadly wind

By Sheila Darrow, Associate Professor, University Archivist

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n 1974, Central State University and its campus were changed forever.  At 4:38 p.m. on Wednesday April 3rd, a tornado destroyed over 80% of the campus, killing four people and injuring more than twenty others.  The immediate recovery was quick. Classes resumed within days and graduation took place as scheduled in June, but it took more than a decade to recover from the devastation.

The cost of damage to campus was more than $30 million; thirteen buildings were destroyed and twenty-nine buildings were damaged. Only sixteen buildings remained standing and intact.  When classes resumed that same month, all but an estimated 150 students returned to complete the term.

Most of the older structures on the campus—those built before or shortly after the turn-of-the-century—were destroyed by the storm.  Bundy, Arnett, and Galloway Halls were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished.  The tower in Galloway Hall, however, was preserved and today houses the CSU Foundation and Office of Alumni Affairs.

Also lost that day were two Wilberforce homes on the National Register of Historic Places:  Homewood Cottage, the former residence of Hallie Q. Brown, and the Scarborough House, the home of Central State University presidents and the former residence of William and Sarah Scarborough.

Dr. Lionel H. Newsome, Central State University president from 1972 to 1985, led the recovery effort.  Newsome, for whom the university’s administration building is named, was a respected sociologist and higher education administrator before coming to Central State University.  Within days of the disaster, both Ohio Governor John Gilligan and President Richard Nixon had toured the campus.  Although initially supportive of rebuilding Central State, each man later expressed doubt in the need for the school’s survival.  This was met by strong resistance from Newsome and university supporters.

As the university worked to recover from the tornado, assistance came from many directions.  In the immediate aftermath, the Red Cross, area medical crews, and a military unit from Wright–Patterson Air Force Base were among the first to respond.  Wilberforce and Cedarville Universities provided student volunteers, housing, and food supplies.  Universities throughout the State of Ohio, including Wright State University, offered books and other instructional materials.  Miami University donated 160 trees.  Some of the trees were planted at the front of the campus; others stand prominently in the Sunken Garden and near the playing fields.

Alumni across the country provided funds and other forms of support; the restoration of the Sunken Garden is one result of their efforts. Singer Nancy Wilson, a CSU alumna, performed two benefit concerts to raise money for the rebuilding of Central State University.  The benefit sites were the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati and the Music Hall in Cleveland.  During the Cleveland concert, Ms. Wilson was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in music.

Classes resumed April 16th in the remaining buildings and makeshift structures.  In June, the 1974 commencement ceremony proceeded as scheduled with Dr. Charles H. Wesley, former president of the university, delivering the commencement address to nearly 300 graduating seniors.  That September, the university began the 1974-1975 school year with fourteen hundred and sixty-two returning student and three hundred and thirty new students.

As a result of the extensive damage due to the strength of the F5 tornado, the Tawawa Woods offered a unique opportunity for the study of forest recovery.  A portion of the woods was, therefore, officially designated a Natural Landmark by the Ohio Department of Natural in 1990 for the purpose of such a study and that research is on-going.

The April 3, 1974 Tornado not only devastated a small rural town in Southwest Ohio, but a university that played a critical role in the history of higher education and advancement of African Americans in this state and the nation.  Landmarks on Ohio’s only public Historically Black University were destroyed beyond repair; newer construction shattered; and a college community stunned. The economic impact of the storm has lingered for years.

In the aftermath of the wreckage, administrators, staff, faculty, students, and alumni had a common goal: rebuild.  Central State University’s recovery is a story of great perseverance and steadfast resolve; one of dedication to a belief and a purpose.