John William Abercrombie (1866-1940) was an important figure in Alabama's educational history as well as a respected political figure. Abercrombie held significant leadership positions in Alabama's education institutions, including serving as president of the University of Alabama (UA) from 1902-1911 and as Alabama Superintendent of Education from 1920 to 1927. Abercrombie also was a Democratic legislator in the Alabama State Senate and represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1913 to 1917. After leaving Congress, Abercrombie served as Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor from 1918 to 1920.
Abercrombie was born May 17, 1866, on a farm in St. Clair County. He was one of six children born to Henry Abercrombie, a Civil War veteran and farmer, and Sarah Anne Kendrick Abercrombie. As a young man, Abercrombie attended St. Clair County public schools and labored on the family farm before being accepted to Oxford College in Oxford, Calhoun County. The college was then considered one of the best in the state, and Abercrombie received a thorough education. While there, Abercrombie distinguished himself as a speaker and debater, proving so talented that he never lost a debate. In 1886, Abercrombie graduated with a bachelor's degree in arts and entered UA, earning a law degree in 1888. While still in law school, Abercrombie began his long career in education by serving as the president of Ashland College in Clay County from 1886 to 1887.
After graduating, Abercrombie was named principal of the Cleburne Institute in Edwardsville, Cleburne County, for a year and also began his political career, serving for a year as the mayor of Edwardsville from 1889 to 1890. That same year, Abercrombie was elected chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee in Cleburne County. Abercrombie married Rosa Merrill, whom he had met while in Edwardsville, on January 8, 1891; they would have four children.
From 1890-1891, Abercrombie served as president of the now-defunct Bowden College of Georgia in Carroll County, superintendent of Anniston public schools from 1891-1897, and president of Anniston College for Young Ladies in Calhoun County, from 1897-1898. In his political life, Abercrombie was elected to the State Senate from Calhoun and Cleburne Counties in 1896 and 1898, respectively. In 1898, he was elected State Superintendent of Education, serving two terms, from 1898 until 1902. During his tenure, he notably improved elementary education funding and successfully promoted tax increases to support education.
Abercrombie's most distinguished position in education came in 1902, when he was appointed president of the University of Alabama at a time when the institution suffered from poor funding and infrastructure maintenance. Abercrombie successfully lobbied the legislature for significant increases in appropriations for the school, totaling more than a million dollars, and oversaw the modernization of school facilities with the installation of electric lighting, steam heating, and a sewage system as well as making administrative improvements. He expanded the School of Medicine and the Department of Engineering and added several new buildings, including a library, gymnasium, and women's dormitories. Enrollment, however, failed to increase as quickly as Abercrombie's expansions, causing tensions with the Board of Trustees. Abercrombie also required rigid enforcement of athletic disciplinary standards, leading to the ouster of unqualified student-athletes and resulting in losing seasons and additional friction with the trustees. These two issues prompted the Board of Trustees to force Abercrombie out as president in 1911, replacing him with George Denny the following year.
After leaving UA, Abercrombie was encouraged to enter the race for an at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The popular Abercrombie, seen as one of the state's greatest champions for education, won the Democratic Primary by more than 5,000 votes. He served in the 63rd Congress and, after a successful reelection, again in the 64th Congress. Abercrombie's tenure seems to have been undistinguished, and he retired in 1917 after being appointed by Pres. Woodrow Wilson to a brief term as solicitor and then Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in 1918.
At DOL, Abercrombie was responsible for immigration issues and was remembered as being unhappy with the position. He wanted early in his tenure to resign because of his distaste for the back-room politics that plagued the department. Furthermore, Abercrombie was disliked by some of his peers in the agency and likely the Justice Department: His insistence on following the letter of the law enabled suspected Communists and anarchists to be released on bond or go free instead of being deported. Some officials went so far as to accuse him of being a Communist sympathizer.
Following the death of Alabama senator John H. Bankhead, Abercrombie saw a chance to leave the department by running for this open seat, although he did not believe his chances to be very good. In the Democratic primary, Abercrombie faced Frank White and the popular J. Thomas Heflin, who ultimately won the seat. He again was elected State Superintendent of Education, assuming the position in 1920 and retiring in 1927. During his tenure, the department published the Course of Study for Elementary Schools in 1921 to assist the state's many new public school teachers to plan their lessons, suggesting textbooks and reference materials and outlining requirements for promotion.
In his personal life, Abercrombie was very active in Alabama's various fraternal brotherhoods, including the Freemasons, Woodmen, Kiwanis, and Knights of Pythias. Abercrombie died in Montgomery on July 2, 1940, and was buried in the city's Greenwood Cemetery.