Located in Cleveland, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, Delta State University is a public institution offering a comprehensive curriculum to more than four thousand students from all over the United States as well as from more than twenty other countries. The university offers bachelor’s degrees in more than fifty majors as well as master’s degrees and doctoral programs.
Delta State Teachers College was created by Mississippi Senate Bill 236, sponsored by Senators W. B. Roberts and Arthur Marshall, and signed into law by Gov. Henry L. Whitfield on 9 April 1924. Housed in the former Bolivar County Agricultural High School buildings in Cleveland, the college opened its doors on 15 September 1925 with 123 students and 11 faculty members. James Wesley Broom was appointed as Delta State’s first president.
In 1926, following Broom’s death, William Marion Kethley, a native of Jackson, was appointed president. He remained in the position for thirty years, during which time the faculty and student body weathered the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the social backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Kethley era also witnessed the expansion of Delta State’s academic and professional course offerings and consequently the school’s 1955 name change to Delta State College.
Whereas Kethley had focused on developing Delta State’s curriculum and academic standards, his successor, James M. Ewing, prioritized the construction of new facilities. Between 1956 and 1971, when Ewing left office, the institution added the president’s home, six groups of dormitories, two groups of apartments for married students, a coliseum, four classrooms and office buildings, a cafeteria, and a library building.
Ewing’s tenure also included major changes brought about by the civil rights movement. The college’s first African American student, Shirley Antoinette Washington, enrolled in the fall of 1967. The black student population subsequently grew, and on 27 February 1969 a group of fifty-two African American students declared themselves the Black Student Organization and presented Ewing with a list of grievances and demands. Items on the list included black counselors and instructors, black history courses, fair grading policies toward black students, an end to discrimination against black students by white professors, scholarship opportunities for black students, and representation for black students in the Student Government Association. When the students’ demands were not met, they staged a sit-in in front of the president’s office on 10 March. After refusing to leave, the students were arrested and taken by bus to Parchman State Penitentiary, where they were kept overnight before being released. The following year Delta State hired two part-time black instructors, one of whom offered a black history course and both of whom served as counselors to black students.
In 1974 the college again changed its name, this time becoming Delta State University. The school has subsequently grown dramatically, diversifying its student body and enhancing its academic, athletic, and extracurricular offerings. Its undergraduate student body is now roughly 40 percent African American and includes Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students as well. It is the only school in Mississippi to offer a degree in commercial aviation.
The school’s athletic teams are officially known as the Statesmen and Lady Statesmen, recognizing the role state representative Walter Sillers Jr. played in locating the school in Cleveland. However, in the mid-1990s, the student body officially adopted the Fighting Okra as an unofficial sports mascot. It has subsequently become a humorous and recognizable symbol of the university and was featured on the “Okraphobia” episode of the Food Network show Good Eats.
Delta State’s women’s basketball team was a national powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s, winning three national titles in each decade. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I women’s basketball Player of the Year receives a trophy named for Margaret Wade, Delta State’s coach and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The university’s football team won the NCAA Division II national championship in 2000 as well as Gulf South Conference championships in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. The baseball team brought home the NCAA Division II national championship trophy in 2004. Among the notables associated with the school’s baseball team are former Major League pitcher Dave “Boo” Ferriss, who coached the Statesmen from 1960 to 1988; Eli Whiteside, who played in the Majors between 2005 and 2014 and was a member of the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants; and John Grisham, who pursued a career as an attorney and author after being cut from the Delta State squad.
- Delta State University website, www.deltastate.edu
- Jack Winton Gunn and Gladys C. Castle, Pictorial History of Delta State University (1980)