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Founded as a private university in 1854, it has been a public institution since 1972, its main campus is located on 422 acres near the town of Oxford in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania.The university has a second location in University City, Philadelphia.

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Horace Mann Bond noted that "This was the first institution founded anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for youth of African descent." While a majority of Lincoln University students are African Americans, the university has a long history of accepting students of other races and nationalities. John Miller Dickey, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Sarah Emlen Cresson, a Quaker, founded Ashmun Institute, later named Lincoln University.

They named it after Jehudi Ashmun, a religious leader and social reformer, they founded the school for the education of African Americans, who had few opportunities for higher education.

John Miller Dickey was the first president of the college, he encouraged some of his first students: James Ralston Amos (1826–1864), his brother Thomas Henry Amos (1825–1869), and Armistead Hutchinson Miller (1829/30-1865), to support the establishment of Liberia as a colony for African Americans.

(This was a project of the American Colonization Society.) Each of the men became ordained ministers.

In 1866, Ashmun Institute was renamed Lincoln University after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln the previous year.

The college attracted highly talented students from numerous states, especially during the long decades of legal segregation in the South, as may be seen on the list of notable alumni (link below), many went on to achievements in careers in academia, public service, the arts and many other fields. Horace Mann Bond, an alumnus of Lincoln, was selected as the first African-American president of the university.During his 12-year tenure, he continued to do social science research, and helped support the important civil rights case of Brown v.Board of Education, decided in 1954 by the US Supreme Court.He established an important relationship with the collector Albert C.Barnes, who ensured Lincoln University had a role in the management of his art collection, the Barnes Foundation.From 1854 to 1954, Lincoln University graduates accounted for 20 percent of black physicians and over 10 percent of black lawyers in the United States.

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