A historically black institution of higher education, Mississippi Valley State University opened in 1950 as Mississippi Vocational College. The school’s origins go back to 1943, when the Delta Council recommended an expanded “program in the study of race . . . relations and the maintenance of harmonious understanding between the two races of the Delta.” The Mississippi legislature responded in 1946 by authorizing the creation of an institution in the Delta that would “train teachers for the rural and elementary schools and to provide vocational education.” Legislators and other members of the state’s white power structure hoped that increasing the educational opportunities available for African Americans would forestall the movement toward desegregation of educational institutions.
The new Mississippi Vocational College held its formal groundbreaking in the small Leflore County town of Itta Bena on 19 February 1950. Dr. J. H. White was selected to serve as the school’s first president. While the campus was envisioned as consisting of forty buildings, two barns, and a stadium, the school at first had just fourteen regular students and seven faculty members, and classes were conducted at the old Leflore County High School building.
Nine of the first twelve graduating students in 1953 received degrees in elementary education. Most students who pursued courses of instruction in vocational terminal programs received certificates of completion in the field of agriculture. In 1954 Mississippi Vocational College had finally constructed enough student dormitories to accommodate its growing student population and began to phase out its early bus transportation and extension services and to concentrate on its majority residential student population. Much of the construction was financed by private donations from such wealthy individuals as Jacob Aron of New York, and by 1960 White was referring to the school as the “College with a Million Friends.” The school began offering academic courses in the liberal arts, nursing, and business administration, and in 1964 it changed its name to Mississippi Valley State College.
By the late 1960s many college campuses faced major problems related to social unrest and racial issues. A black college located in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, Mississippi Valley State could not help but get caught up in this turbulent era. This growing student unrest culminated in at least two riots in 1968 and 1970, and in February 1969 eight hundred students staged a nonviolent boycott, demanding black history courses, an increase in the number of works by black writers in the library, remedial courses in English and math, lectures and presentations by prominent black speakers, and fewer curfew restrictions. Student enrollment dropped dramatically. White attempted to bolster admissions by abandoning entrance requirements and returning to the school’s former open-enrollment policy before resigning effective 1 July 1971.
Under his successor, Dr. Earnest A. Boykins, the school became Mississippi Valley State University on 15 March 1974 and entered an era of what future university administrator Dr. Roy Hudson subsequently characterized as “a growth period for the institution in terms of enrollment, program expansion, and physical plant.” However, Hudson noted, “it was also a period which portended future problems with the university,” with a “decline in college student population, stricter admission standards, inflationary costs in education, and internal and external political problems.”
During Boykins’s tenure, the school implemented thirty-two new academic programs, including the Academic Skills Program, which was designed to help disadvantaged students. In 1976 the school added its first master’s degree program. In the spring of 1977 campus enrollment reached thirty-one hundred, a new peak. By the following fall semester, however, enrollment had dropped to twenty-five hundred as a consequence of the board’s insistence that the school raise both admission standards and tuition. Boykins resigned in August 1981 and was replaced by Dr. Joseph Boyer the following January.
Boyer’s administration initially saw increased enrollment, and the school gained national attention through its football program. During the 1983–86 “Satellite Express” era, football coach Archie Cooley directed a squad that included quarterback Willie Totten and future Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice. (Another Hall of Fame member, Deacon Jones, attended the school during the 1950s.) The school faced closure in both 1984 and 1985, and Boyer resigned in January 1988.
Dr. William H. Sutton took over six months later “with an operating deficit and declining enrollment.” In addition, the school faced closure yet again as part of the fallout from the 1975 Ayers v. Mississippi case, in which the father of a student at one of the state’s three predominantly black colleges challenged the state’s funding of the institutions. Mississippi Valley State again survived, and by the mid-1990s it had begun “the quest to move from the mode of surviving to that of thriving.”
Sutton retired on 1 July 1998 and was replaced by Dr. Lester C. Newman, who launched an expansion program, “From Excellence to Preeminence.” Newman oversaw a reorganization of the curriculum and instituted other innovations in time for Mississippi Valley State’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 2000. The following year, the school opened the off-campus Greenville Higher Learning Center. Newman retired in 2007, and Donna H. Oliver became the school’s first female president in January 2009. William B. Bynum Jr. succeeded Oliver in 2013 to become the university’s seventh president.
Mississippi Valley State currently serves an undergraduate population of about nineteen hundred students, more than 90 percent of them African American and about 57 percent of them female. The university is divided into the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education, the College of Professional Studies, the Honors Program, and the Graduate School, which offers master’s degrees in environmental health, elementary education, criminal justice, business administration, special education, rural public policy, and teaching.
- Greenwood Commonwealth (13 April 1983, 18 May 2003)
- Roy C. Hudson, “Mississippi Valley State University: Historical Reflections,” The Presidential Inaugural of Dr. Lester C. Newman (program) (24 April 1999)
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (3 April 1973)
- Mississippi Valley State University website, www.mvsu.edu
- William L. Ware, Greenwood Commonwealth (27 December 2007)
- J. H. White, Up from a Cotton Patch: J. H. White and the Development of Mississippi Valley State College (1979)