|Johnson C. Smith University was established on April 7, 1867 as the Biddle Memorial Institute at a meeting of the Catawba Presbytery in the old Charlotte Presbyterian Church. Mrs. Mary D. Biddle, a churchwoman, donated $1,400 to the school. In appreciation of this first contribution, friends requested Mrs. Biddle to name the newly established school after her late husband, Major Henry Biddle. Two ministers, Rev. Samuel C. Alexander and the Rev. Willis L. Miller, saw the need for a school in the south and after the birth of the school they were elected as some of the first teachers. Its coordinate women's school was Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College).
In 1876, the charter was changed by the Legislature of the State of North Carolina and the name became Biddle University, under which name the institution operated until 1923.
In 1891, Biddle University elected Dr. Daniel J. Sanders as the first African-American as President of a four-year institute in the south.
From 1921 to 1922, Jane Berry Smith donated funds to build a theological dormitory, a science hall, a teachers' cottage and a memorial gate. She also provided an endowment for the institution in memory of her late husband, Johnson C. Smith. Up until her death she donated funds for five more buildings and a campus church. In recognition of these generous benefactions, the Board of Trustees voted to change the name of the institution to Johnson C. Smith University. The charter of the school, accordingly, was amended on March 1, 1923, by the Legislature of the State of North Carolina.
In 1924, James B. Duke established the Duke Endowment. While the largest share of that the Endowment's earnings are allocated to support Duke University, Duke's donation required that 4% of its earnings be given to the university. Over the years, this share of the Endowment's distributions has exceeded $90 million.
In 1932, the university's charter was amended, providing for the admission of women. The 65-year-old institution for men then became partially coeducational. The first residence hall for women, named in memory of James B. Duke, was dedicated in 1940. In 1941, women were admitted to the freshman class. In 1942, the university was a fully coeducational institution.
JCSU joined the United Negro College Fund in 1944 as a founding member. This fund was organized primarily to help church-related schools of higher learning to revamp their training programs, to expand their plants, to promote faculty growth and to create new areas of service.
In Fall 2000, JCSU launched the IBM Laptop Initiative becoming one of few colleges in the country and the first historically black college to provide an IBM laptop computer to every student. Known as "ThinkPad U", JCSU gives students and their computers complete access to the campus-wide network and the Internet. Since 1994, the ratio of computers to students improved from 1:10 to 1:1.1. With this new initiative and the commitment to integrate technology throughout the curriculum, JCSU gained national recognition. It also ranked #10 among Top HBCU's.