Mississippi University for Women, originally Mississippi Industrial Institute and College, was founded in 1884 as the first publicly supported college for women in the United States. This school’s creation resulted largely from the combined political efforts of a trio of Mississippi educational activists, Sallie Eola Reneau, Olivia Valentine Hastings, and Annie Coleman Peyton.
The Tennessee-born Reneau (1836–78) was the first woman to lobby the Mississippi legislature to appropriate funds for higher education for women. A resident of Grenada County and later of Batesville in Panola County, Reneau was an 1854 graduate of the Holly Springs Female Institute, one of the best private schools for women in the state. Entering the teaching profession immediately after graduation, she soon realized that the only option for higher education, private female seminaries and institutes, lay beyond the reach of most Mississippi women, although the state had offered men a public university education at the University of Mississippi since 1848. By the late 1850s, strongly supported by her father, Nathaniel Smith Reneau, a veteran of the Mexican War and later US ambassador to Mexico, she began a writing campaign focused on persuading the Mississippi legislature to support free higher education for women so that “the indigent as well as the opulent may receive . . . the imperishable riches of a well-cultivated mind.” She was only twenty when her essay, “Memorial to the Mississippi Legislature,” persuaded the legislature to approve the creation of a women’s college in Yalobusha County. However, the legislative support was more enthusiastic than practical, since no funds were appropriated to build or operate the college. Reneau continued to press for a public college for women into the 1870s: in 1872 the legislature approved the creation of a branch of the University of Mississippi to be called Reneau Female University of Mississippi and designated Reneau as the first president. But this bill and a similar one approved in 1873 again had no financial backing, so Reneau Female University never came into existence.
Reneau continued to teach and to lobby for women’s education but in 1878 took on a new cause. Yellow fever was raging in parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. The Memphis area was ravaged by the infection, and the poor who were unable to flee to a cooler climate died by the thousands. Reneau volunteered for nursing duty in Memphis, intending not only to take care of the sick but to write letters describing the epidemic to her father in Washington, D.C., for publication in northern newspapers. For a time their plan succeeded, prompting several northern philanthropists to send food and medicine south to affected towns and cities. But Reneau herself caught the fever and died.
Born in Claiborne County, Olivia Valentine (1842–96) was just a few years younger than Reneau, but there is no evidence that the two women ever corresponded about their similar interests. Valentine’s family had considerable wealth and property before the Civil War but suffered substantial financial losses afterward. Her parents died while she was still a young girl, and she and her siblings were raised by their grandparents near Port Gibson. She received a private education at a female seminary in Kentucky, including instruction in music, and probably also studied at a girls’ school in Pennsylvania or Maryland. After the war she came to understand the financial difficulties women faced when they had lacked the skills to earn a living. In 1877 Valentine married John G. Hastings, a widower with several children. Together they had one daughter, Adeline.
Almost immediately after her marriage, Olivia Hastings began advocating for public women’s education in Mississippi. She was interested primarily in the promotion of industrial or vocational education, believing that a skill or a trade would help the poor women of her impoverished state support themselves. By the early 1880s she was writing regular letters to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger under the pen name “Olive,” advocating free public industrial education for the white girls of Mississippi. About that same time, in 1881, the state Grange, an agricultural organization, declared itself in favor of public industrial education for women. In 1884 State Senator John McCaleb Martin, a neighbor and family friend of the Hastingses in Claiborne County, decided that he would work with Olivia Hastings to write a bill for a public industrial college for women.
Since 1883 Hastings had been corresponding with another Mississippian, Annie Coleman Peyton (1852–98), who under the pen name “A Mississippi Woman” had since 1879 been submitting legislative petitions, writing letters to newspapers, and publishing pamphlets promoting the creation of a public liberal arts college for women. Hastings and Peyton agreed to work together to promote a state institution that would offer an educational hybrid to Mississippi girls—a curriculum that was part industrial instruction and part collegiate liberal arts education, an “industrial institute and college.” In 1884 Peyton had waited for the Grangers to sponsor a bill, as they had in 1882, but when it did not materialize, she accepted Hinds County senator J. K. McNeilly’s offer to sponsor a “Bill for the Establishment of a State Normal and Industrial School for the White Girls of Mississippi.” She commented in a later memoir that she knew that normal would “attract the schoolmen” and that industrial “might win the farmers to its support.” Not long after McNeilly’s bill was filed, Peyton learned of Senator Martin’s bill and asked McNeilly to compare the bills and withdraw their version if Martin’s was superior. Martin’s bill called for the immediate establishment of the institution, while McNeilly and Peyton’s merely requested a small appropriation and the formation of a board of trustees. McNeilly withdrew his bill, and both women and their senator allies threw all their support behind the Martin bill, which narrowly passed both houses of the legislature in March 1884.
Annie Coleman was a baby when her father died, but her mother sent her to Whitworth College, a Methodist school for women in Brookhaven, and she graduated as valedictorian in 1872. After teaching for two years at her alma mater, she married Ephraim Peyton, a Hazlehurst attorney and a judge, and they eventually had eight children. Her years as a student and as a faculty member at Whitworth made her aware of the nearly constant financial problems suffered by the church-supported school, and she was convinced that only state support would ensure the survival of a liberal arts college for women. Peyton campaigned to have the state take over the operation of Whitworth College but discovered that restrictions in the will that had created the school would return its property to members of the Whitworth family if the college left the control of the Methodist church. Like Hastings, Peyton concluded that women needed to be able to support themselves, since “especially for women, ignorance is death.” Rather than industrial training, however, Peyton advocated a broad liberal arts curriculum as the best route for women’s survival.
Both women served on the committee that planned and designed the curriculum for the new college for women, and Peyton chaired the group. By October 1885 their plans resulted in the opening of the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for White Girls (II&C) on the former location of the private Columbus Female Institute in Columbus. Hastings and Ellen Martin soon helped to establish a loan fund for girls who could not afford to pay even the small boarding expenses at the II&C. In 1889, the same year that the II&C produced its first graduating class, the widowed Peyton moved with several of her children to Columbus, and for the remainder of her life she taught history at the II&C. Her daughters Annie, Artie, and Mary Lou eventually graduated from the college.
All three of the founding mothers are honored at the institution they helped to create. Mississippi University for Women’s Reneau Hall, originally built as a residence hall, now houses the College of Business and the Offices of Academic Advising and Institutional Research, and both Hastings-Simmons Hall and Peyton Hall are dormitories.
- Bridget Smith Pieschel and Stephen Robert Pieschel, Loyal Daughters: One Hundred Years at Mississippi University for Women, 1884–1984 (1984)