Founded in 1830 by the Presbytery of Mississippi, Oakland College was located in Claiborne County. The founding of the college was part of a larger trend of college building undertaken by religious denominations around the United States during the early 1800s. Oakland, like many other religious colleges, was founded to train an educated ministry. Fearing the morally and physically unhealthy impact a town or city might have on students, the founders located the college on 250 acres near Rodney.
Oakland College found the early success that eluded its nearby rival, Jefferson College. In 1831 Oakland College awarded the state’s first bachelor’s degree to James M. Smylie, and the school went on to attract many other young men, including several sons of the Natchez elite. Although some Mississippians, among them Natchez minister Joseph B. Stratton, complained that Oakland’s secluded rural location deterred prospective students, enrollment soared from an initial three students to more than one hundred by the 1850s. Many Mississippi observers pointed to Oakland College as proof that southern institutions could attain the same level of success and prominence as the northern institutions to which many planters sent their sons. As sectional tensions grew during the antebellum period, Oakland College and other such schools grew increasingly more important.
Supporters included Rev. James Smylie, Dr. John Ker, David Hunt, and Rev. Benjamin Chase, and the college flourished despite the murder of its president, Jeremiah Chamberlain, in 1851. Local planter George Briscoe felt that Chamberlain, a staunch Unionist, did not support southern rights and stabbed him in front of his residence at the college. R. L. Stanton replaced Chamberlain. Later presidents included James Purviance and William Breckinridge.
Although most Oakland students did not pursue religious careers, ministerial training remained an important part of the school’s mission. From 1837 to 1841, Ker endowed a special chair in theology at the institution. At the same time, the Presbyterian churches in nearby Bethel and Rodney gave considerable support to Oakland. In turn, students from the college contributed both money and energy to the churches.
By 1861 Oakland was the oldest college in continuous operation in Mississippi, but the Civil War brought serious challenges. Students and professors alike left to join the fight, and the college closed in 1862. During the war, Union forces occupied the campus. The institution never reopened, and in 1871 the state of Mississippi purchased the campus and reopened it as Alcorn University to educate newly freed slaves. In 1878 Alcorn became the nation’s first land-grant college for black students. The Synod of Mississippi used the proceeds from the sale to start Chamberlain-Hunt Academy in Port Gibson.
- Melvin Kellogg Bruss, “History of Oakland College (Mississippi), 1830–1871” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 1965)
- Aubrey Keith Lucas, in A History of Mississippi, ed. Richard Aubrey McLemore (1973)
- Edward Mayes, A History of Education in Mississippi (1970)
- Julia Huston Nguyen, “Molding the Minds of the South: Education in Natchez, 1817–1861” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 1997)
- Tommy Wayne Rogers, Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 1974)
- David Sansing, Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)