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
Dr. Rogers is currently writing a new history of Mississippi Baptists.
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.