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The controversy that almost moved Mississippi College to Meridian

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

     Few Mississippians are aware that in the 1890s, there was a huge controversy among Baptists over an attempt to remove Mississippi College from Clinton to a more prominent location, ultimately favoring Meridian. Those in favor of relocating the school were nicknamed “removalists.” The removalist movement began sometime in the mid-1880s, as it was first suggested publicly at the State Convention in 1885, and the issue came to the forefront in 1891.1

     The trustees of Mississippi College tried to stop the movement by making changes in the administration of the college. The president, W. S. Webb, had served faithfully since 1873 but he appeared physically incapable of continuing as the administrator of the college. On August 11, 1891, after a closed-door meeting with the faculty, the trustees encouraged Dr. Webb to retire, which he agreed to do, and he was made an emeritus professor. Webb was succeeded by his son-in-law, Robert A. Venable, who left the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Memphis to become the college’s president. Two younger professors, R. M. Leavell and S. C. Mitchell, resigned in objection to these changes. Historian Z. T. Leavell implied that the changes involved a conflict between older and younger generations, writing that “the surging of young manhood, with progressive ideas opposed the staid thoughts of wise old age.”2

     At the same time that it was making administrative changes, Mississippi College was having financial problems. More than half of all Mississippi Baptist gifts went to the college in 1891, yet the college operated at a loss. The buildings needed repairs, and the finance committee was behind in paying professor’s salaries. The school reported these deficits to the Convention from year to year, but the deficits continued to increase. The trustees urged an increase in the college endowment from $40,000 to a “minimum” of $100,000, if the school were to compete with rival institutions. It was because of these challenges that the “removalist” movement arose. Some leaders contended that the removal of Mississippi College to a larger city would give it added prestige, thus furnishing an incentive for larger gifts for its endowment. Clinton was still a village of only 354 people in 1900, whereas Meridian had 14,050 citizens, making it the second-largest city in the State after Vicksburg’s 14,834.3

     At the State Convention meeting in 1891, a committee was elected to study other possible locations for Mississippi College. There was widespread interest in relocating the college, even some support among the college’s closest friends, as the study committee included two trustees of the college, and former college president W. S. Webb presided over the meeting, as he was serving as president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention at the time.4

     When the State Convention met again in 1892, the committee reported an offer from the city of Meridian to donate 20 acres of land and erect a building by October 1893, if the college would relocate there. Immediately after the report, W. H. Hardy proposed that the offer of Meridian be accepted. Hardy was a resident of Meridian, former State Convention president, and one of the most prominent businessmen in the State. However, there was fierce opposition to the proposal. Walter Hillman of Clinton delivered a well-prepared speech against the relocation. Hillman was the former president of Hillman College and Mississippi College, and he had given financial aid to the college during the Reconstruction period when no one else could. Both Hardy and Hillman were respected, influential leaders. Sharp lines were drawn, but those favoring removal were in the majority. Speeches, motions and counter motions were made on each side. J. S. Solomon of Meridian raised the offer to 80 acres of land and the “removalists” guaranteed $50,000 from business men of Meridian, to remove the college to Meridian, while the opposition could only offer to repair the buildings at Clinton. Debate continued until 1:30 in the morning, when the exhausted messengers finally voted, 96-66 in favor or removing the college to Meridian. Mississippi College was to be removed from Clinton.5       

     While the question was settled by a vote of the Convention, it was not settled in the minds of Mississippi Baptists. The State Convention of 1892 was “the stormiest of the 19th century.” Central Association, where Clinton was located, was discontented, and the people of Clinton were determined to exhaust every resource before giving up the college. The State was deluged with circular papers condemning the removal. The debate was so heated, that editor of The Baptist Record decided to stop printing letters and circulars on the subject. W. H. Hardy pointed out that the Convention had already voted, and it was a moot issue.6

     At this point, a lawyer for the Mississippi College trustees dropped a bombshell. On January 11, 1893, Judge David Shelton presented his opinion to the trustees that the college charter from the legislature fixed the name, and location of the college at Clinton, and that the Baptists took control of Mississippi College identified by name and location. Therefore, removal of the college would be a breach of the charter and the Baptists would forfeit control. The trustees took no action, but this legal opinion ultimately became the death blow to the removal movement. The committee appointed by the State Convention to supervise the relocation of the college did nothing. Meridian became impatient by the inaction and gave the Baptists a deadline of March to begin the removal. When nothing happened, Meridian withdrew its bid. As powerful as William H. Hardy was, he could not win this battle. Hardy built a railroad from Meridian to New Orleans and built another railroad from Jackson to Gulfport, Hardy established the towns of Hattiesburg and Gulfport, and Hardy had even persuaded reluctant Baptists to organize a more efficient State Convention Board, but Hardy could not move Mississippi College.7

SOURCES:

1 Richard Aubrey McLemore and Nannie Pitts McLemore, The History of Mississippi College (Jackson: Hederman Brothers, 1979), 95.

2 McLemore, The History of Mississippi College, 111;  Z. T. Leavell, Baptist Annals or Twenty-Two Years With Mississippi Baptists, 1877-1899, 76, 78-79; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1891, 39.

3 Leavell, 77-78; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1891, 38-39; U.S. Census of 1920, “Mississippi: Population of Incorporated Places: 1920, 1910 and 1900,” 17-18.

4 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1891, 31; McLemore, The History of Mississippi College, 118-119.

5 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1892, 11-12, 15-16; Boyd, 191; Leavell, Baptist Annals, 82-83; McLemore, The History of Mississippi College, 120.

6 Boyd, 171; McLemore, The History of Mississippi College, 123.

7 Leavell, Baptist Annals, 85-92; Minutes, Mississippi College Board of Trustees, January 20, 1893; The Baptist Record, February 2, 1893, March 2, 1893; Boyd, 249-251.

How Baptists acquired Mississippi College

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

    Mississippi College had been founded at Clinton in 1826 as Hampstead Academy, by a group of local citizens interested in education for their children. Thirty students enrolled for the first time in 1827. Its founders were influential people; they included H. G. Runnels, who was to become governor of the State. In 1827 the legislature changed its name to Mississippi Academy, and then in 1830 the name was changed to Mississippi College, with the authority to grant “such degrees in the arts, sciences and languages, as are usually conferred in the most respectable colleges in the United States.”1

    Mississippi College was divided into a female and male department, each with its own faculty. The female department prospered better than the male department, and in 1831, the college became the first coeducational institution in America to grant degrees to women: Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall. The curriculum for women in 1837 included Latin, Greek, French, music and fine art. Supporters of Mississippi College hoped it would be adopted by the legislature as the State University, especially since the legislature allowed it to be financed by public land monies. However, in 1840 the legislature established the University of Mississippi, and began to select a location (eventually choosing Oxford), which ruled out a possibility of Mississippi College becoming the state’s university. At this point, the trustees looked for a religious denomination to sponsor the school. They offered the college to the Methodists, who accepted but then quickly rescinded their decision in 1841, since they had created their own school, Centenary College, not far away in Brandon Springs. The trustees then turned to the Presbyterians, who accepted, and in 1842 the Clinton Presbytery of the Mississippi Synod assumed control of the college. The Presbyterians operated the institution from 1842 to 1850 with considerable success. However, the Presbyterian denomination was suffering theological and political schisms between “Old” and “New” schools, dividing between North and South, much as Baptists had divided. These struggles, along with competition for funds from with another Presbyterian school, Oakland College, forced the trustees to offer Mississippi College to the State in 1848 a “normal” college to educate teachers. The legislature refused, so in 1850 the Clinton Presbytery severed ties to the college, and the trustees surrendered the school to the citizens of Clinton.2

     Clinton was not able to manage the college by itself. Although Hinds County in 1850 was a prosperous, growing county, with a population of over 25,000, and a railroad line had been completed from Vicksburg, through Clinton to Jackson, Clinton itself was still only a village of a few hundred people. The citizens of Clinton could not support the college by themselves, and the enrollment of the school was not yet large enough to support the college on its own. Even the faculty selected for the 1850-51 session, which included a Baptist as president, William Carey Crane, were unable or unwilling to accept the responsibility. At this point, a Methodist pastor suggested giving Mississippi College to the Baptists, and a wealthy Baptist leader seized on the opportunity. Rev. Thomas Ford, minister of the Methodist Church in Clinton, suggested that the Mississippi Baptist Convention sponsor the college. Benjamin Whitfield, a wealthy planter and pastor in Hinds County, and one of the founders of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, was elected a trustee of the college on August 12. If the transfer was to be made to the Baptists, quick action was needed, because there was a rival proposal for the Baptists “of building up a college at Raymond,” which was going to be presented to the State Convention in November. A committee that included Whitfield negotiated the deal on November 1, and when the Mississippi Baptist Convention met in Jackson on November 7, the committee recommended that the project at Raymond be rejected as “impracticable, because of the expense it would involve the Convention.” Then the committee said, “The Trustees of the ‘Mississippi College,’ located at Clinton, Hinds county, offer control of the College, unincumbered by a cent of debt…  The property is understood to be worth eleven thousand dollars. It is recommended, that the tender be at once accepted.” The resolution passed, and the dream of Mississippi Baptists for a college of their own was realized.3

SOURCES:

1 Board of Trustees of Mississippi College, Minute Book I, 3, 5, 7. Also see Isaac Caldwell to John A. Quitman, April 11, 1828, in Jesse L. Boyd, Good Reasons for a History of Mississippi College, 6-7. These materials are in the archives, Mississippi Baptist Historical Commission, Leland Speed Library, Mississippi College, Clinton, Mississippi.

2 Aubrey Keith Lucas, “Education in Mississippi from Statehood to the Civil War,” in A History of Mississippi, vol. 1, Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed. (Hattiesburg: University and College Press of Mississippi, 1973), 360-361; “Mississippi College Timeline,” accessed on the Internet 30 April 2022 at http://www.mc.edu/about/history/timeline; W. H. Weathersby, “A History of Mississippi College,” Publications of Mississippi Historical Society, Centenary Series, V, 184-219. Also see Minute Book I, 51, 56.

3 U.S. Census, “Population of the United States in 1850: Mississippi,” accessed on the Internet 30 April 2022 at https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1850/1850a/1850a-34.pdf. The population of Clinton is not even listed in 1850. In 1860, Clinton is listed as having 289 citizens.  U.S. Census, “Population of the United States in 1860: Mississippi,” accessed on the Internet 30 April 2022 at https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1860/population/1860a-22.pdf; Board of Trustees of Mississippi College, Minute Book I, 88-90; Clinton News, Dec. 1967; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1850, 27.

Dr. Rogers is currently revising and updating A History of Mississippi Baptists.

Guest blogs coming from my children

Mary and I have three children, and we are very proud of all three of them. In the next few days, I will be posting guest blogs by each of them, from the oldest to the youngest.
Our daughter, Melissa Rogers Dalton, is a graduate of Effingham County High School and Mercer University, and is earning a master’s degree from Longwood University. Melissa is married to Steven Dalton of Mechanicsville, Virginia, where they now live. Steven is a child labor investigator for the Virginia Department of Labor. Melissa teaches fourth grade at New Kent Elementary School, and she gave birth to our first grandson, Keagan Dalton, on December 16. She will be writing about how it feels to be a new mother.
Our daughter, Lauren Rogers Knight, is a graduate of Effingham County High School and Mississippi College and is married to Philip “Pip” Knight of Rincon. They live in Gulfport, Mississippi. Pip is an air traffic controller at the Gulfport airport, and Lauren is a service representative for Million Air, a full based operation for private planes, and she is an independent consultant for Rodan and Fields. Lauren will write about the differences and similarity of living on the Georgia coast and the Mississippi coast.
Our son, Wade Rogers, is a graduate of Effingham County High School and is a second year student at Georgia Tech, majoring in business administration. He works at WREK, the student radio station, and announces Georgia Tech baseball games on the radio. Wade will be writing about a week in the life of a college student.