What is now the Mississippi University for Women was known as the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College from its founding in 1884 until 1920. The struggle to establish the school began in 1856 when Sally Eola Reneau prepared a presentation for the legislature urging the creation of an institution to provide a specifically southern higher education for the women of Mississippi. The legislature passed the bill but allocated no funds. After the Civil War, Reneau renewed her efforts, and in 1872 she again received legislative approval to establish a women’s college but no funding.
In the early 1880s Annie Coleman Peyton and Olivia Valentine Hastings took up the cause. Peyton published numerous newspaper editorials under the pseudonym “A Mississippi Woman” and made presentations throughout the state. Hastings earned the support of Sen. J. McCaleb Martin of Claiborne County, who brought the Establishment Bill to the Mississippi legislature on 12 March 1884. The bill passed by just two votes in the House and one vote in the Senate. The legislature also appropriated forty thousand dollars to support the new school. Students were required to take courses in liberal arts and to learn a practical skill to prepare them to support themselves. Each county received an enrollment quota, and education was to be free for any student appointed by her county’s superintendent of education.
Although many Mississippi towns and cities actively vied to become the site of the new school, the board of trustees chose Columbus because the facilities of the Columbus Female Institute were available for free and the city offered an additional fifty thousand dollars in bonds. Richard W. Jones, a professor of chemistry at the University of Mississippi and the new school’s first president, hired seventeen female faculty members, including Pauline Van de Graaf Orr, who served as “mistress of English” until 1914.
The Mississippi Industrial Institute and College opened with great fanfare on 22 October 1885, with 341 students from all parts of Mississippi and from all economic circumstances. These students were largely unprepared for higher education. As young as fifteen, many had completed no schooling past the primary grades. Student life was strictly regulated and regimented, down to such matters as types of buttons and underwear. Almost immediately, considerable controversy developed both on and off campus as to whether the school should focus on providing a liberal arts education or job skills for poor girls.
Jones resigned after three years, and the school endured four changes of administration during its first six years of operation. Charles Hartwell Cocke, the second president, was mediocre and unqualified, and the board removed him from office in March 1890, naming Mary S. J. Calloway to serve as temporary president. Arthur H. Beals, the third president, proved another poor choice, and the board did not ask him to return for a second year. For those who opposed women’s education, the lack of administrative stability reflected the futility of the enterprise. However, the board’s next choice, Robert Frazer, was more successful, and he remained president for eight years, although his administration was hampered by a significant financial downturn in the 1890s. Following Frazer’s resignation in 1898, the Mississippi legislature sent a ten-man investigative committee to evaluate the presidential turnover. Although the committee members found the school in administrative disarray, they recognized that it had done much good for Mississippi’s young women.
The board appointed native Mississippian Andrew Armstrong Kincannon to be the school’s fifth president. Kincannon had previously served as the state superintendent of education, which made him both politically savvy and well connected. Before accepting the position, he demanded that the board seek additional funding and pledge not to interfere with his administration. Kincannon became a tireless promoter of the school, visiting many parts of the state and seeking to reassure citizens about the school’s aims and policies. He took a particular interest in teacher training, establishing a model school and offering summer sessions for both male and female teachers. Kincannon resigned after nine years to accept the chancellorship of the University of Mississippi.
In 1907 Henry Lewis Whitfield became the school’s final president. Whitfield felt that the school should offer both liberal arts and industrial courses, and his decisions about curriculum led to much controversy and dissension. In 1914 a statewide scandal erupted when someone distributed pamphlets highly critical of Whitfield and signed them only “S. T. Payer.” During Whitfield’s presidency, student preparation for higher education had improved to the point that the school abolished its remedial program in 1914. In 1918 the last two-year diplomas were issued to prospective teachers, who thereafter took a four-year program.
In early 1920 the legislature considered changing the Industrial Institute and College into a junior college for women. After Whitfield invited the legislators to visit the school, they voted to keep the school autonomous and changed its name to the Mississippi State College for Women in recognition of its primary academic purpose.
- Deborah A. Hall, “‘Coming of Age’ in the Progressive Era: The Role of Southern Women’s Higher Education between 1900 and 1917” (PhD dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1991)
- Loyce Braswell Miles, “Forgotten Scholars: Female Education in Three Antebellum Deep Southern States” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 2003)
- Sarah D. Neilson, “The History of the Mississippi State College for Women” (1954)
- Bridget Smith Pieschel and Stephen Robert Pieschel, Loyal Daughters: One Hundred Years at Mississippi University for Women, 1884–1984 (1984)
- David G. Sansing, Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)