Historian and teacher Franklin Lafayette Riley Jr. was born in what was then Lawrence County, Mississippi, on 24 August 1868. His father, Franklin Lafayette Riley, was a successful farmer and merchant in Hebron who married Balsorah I. Weathersby while on furlough from the Confederate Army. Riley earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Clinton’s Mississippi College in 1890 and 1891. While in college Riley met Fanny T. Leigh, a student at Clinton’s Central Female Institute, and they married on 15 July 1891. They went on to have seven children.
One of numerous southern students welcomed into northern universities during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Riley gained admittance in 1893 to the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, where he thrived under the tutelage of Herbert Baxter Adams. Frustrated at the lack of historical resources within his native state, Riley wrote a dissertation on the origins of early American state senates, a topic that reflected Adams’s influence. After receiving a doctorate in 1896, Riley returned to Mississippi, serving first as president of Fanny’s alma mater, renamed the Hillman College for Young Women, and then accepting a position at the University of Mississippi. History had previously been an afterthought in the university’s curriculum, taught by whoever had an opening. Riley became the first historian employed by the university and the first faculty member whose principal responsibility consisted of teaching history.
While he quickly became a key figure in the study of history at the university, perhaps Riley’s longest-lasting influence in the state stems from his role in resuscitating its faltering historical society. Attempts to establish a historical society predated the Civil War, but all had become defunct, including the most recent effort, which had begun in 1890 but by 1897 had only nine members. With characteristic energy and optimism, Riley simply announced that the society would meet in January 1897 in Jackson. Skilled at persuasion and conscious of the importance of political regard, he solicited speakers to present papers and invited members of the state legislature to attend. The gathering was a modest success and resulted in more work and responsibility for Riley, who was elected the society’s treasurer, a position he held for the next sixteen years.
At that first meeting, Riley assured all dues-paying members that they would receive subscriptions to the society’s history journal. At the time of his promise, such a journal did not exist. Riley assumed the responsibility of procuring articles and editing the Proceedings of the Mississippi Historical Society for its first fourteen years, a span that saw the publication grow from little more than a record of antiquarian notes to a reputable journal of historical scholarship. Throughout this period, Riley continued to publish works exploring varied aspects of Mississippi’s colonial past. Additionally, during this period of nearly frenetic activity, he also authored a textbook of Mississippi state history, with contributions on the Civil War and Reconstruction from former Confederate general Stephen D. Lee and James Wilford Garner. The textbook was immediately adopted throughout the state and went through numerous editions.
Certain that the society could not survive solely on membership dues, Riley persuaded the state legislature to provide modest funding. More important, that body appointed Riley to chair the Mississippi Historical Commission and charged it with surveying the state’s historical resources and their well-being. The commission recommended the establishment of a permanent state-funded department of historical records and preservation, and the legislature responded in 1902 with the creation of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Encumbered with his teaching position and his essential role in the Historical Society, Riley nevertheless remained a trustee of the department for the next twelve years.
In 1914 Riley broke with the University of Mississippi. While the nature of the breach is not precisely known, his “political interference with University governance” was cited at the time as instrumental in the decision to go their separate ways. The breach could not have been terribly acrimonious, however, as the Law School awarded Riley an honorary degree in 1916. Moreover, the university students dedicated the 1914–15 yearbook to Riley, describing him as one “who never spoke but to inspire,” “whose name will never be mentioned by an officer, student or friend of the University . . . without a deep sense of pride and gratitude for what he did for Mississippi.”
Riley accepted a position at Washington and Lee College in Lexington, Virginia, and remained there with only brief interruptions for the rest of his life. In 1919 Riley spent a year teaching American history overseas at the American Expeditionary Forces University, in Beaune, France, and he spent the 1925–26 academic year teaching at the University of Southern California. In 1922 he published his last work of history, editing a collective memoir of the professors and students who had known and worked with Robert E. Lee during the former general’s postwar tenure as president of Washington and Lee (known at the time as Washington College).
Riley died on 10 November 1929 in Lexington, Virginia.
- American Historical Review (January 1930)
- John Spencer Barrett, South Atlantic Quarterly (October 1902)
- Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi (1891)
- James B. Lloyd, ed., Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967 (1981)
- Albert Nelson Marquis, ed., Who’s Who in America (1928); Ole Miss: The Official Yearbook of the University of Mississippi (1915)
- Howard D. Southwood, Journal of Mississippi History (October 1951)
- Charles S. Sydnor, Journal of Southern History (May 1937)
- Roger D. Tate Jr., “Franklin L. Riley: His Career to 1914” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1971)