Pauline Van de Graaf Orr was one of the most important educators in the South before 1920. Orr was born in 1861 in Chickasaw County to Cornelia Van de Graaf Orr and Jehu Orr, a well-known attorney and judge in Columbus. Both of her parents had been educated in the North, and her father had earned a master’s degree from Princeton University.
Pauline Orr demonstrated a precocious love of learning and spent her childhood days reading through the family’s collection of classics. In Columbus she took the unprecedented path of appealing directly to the headmaster of a boys’ school for admission to the college preparatory course of study. At sixteen she entered New York’s Packer Collegiate Institute, one of the nation’s best schools for girls. After graduation she traveled to Germany and studied at the University of Hanover. Orr apparently expressed little interest in the effort to create a state-supported institution of higher education for Mississippi’s women, but after the legislature founded the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi in 1884 and Columbus was chosen as the site of the new school, Pres. R. W. Jones met Orr and immediately asked her to serve as “mistress of English.”
Over the next thirty years, Orr strove to make the school the equal of any women’s college. She was known as an extremely demanding yet inspiring instructor. Experience had taught her that women could perform well in difficult academic environments, and she insisted on only the best from her students. Orr’s dedication to high standards led to almost constant conflicts with those who felt that the school should focus more on vocational training than on liberal arts education. Attrition rates for students in Orr’s classes were high because students as young as fifteen enrolled without adequate preparation, and Orr endured strained relations with a series of school officials who she felt lacked a firm commitment to high academic standards.
During the early 1890s Orr began what would become a lifelong relationship with Miriam Greene Paslay, one of the first baccalaureate graduates of the Industrial Institute and College. In addition to teaching, the two periodically traveled together in Europe between 1893 and 1905, studying at the University of Munich and the University of Zurich as well as touring Italy. Orr was influenced by the spirit of European romanticism and particularly by Thomas Carlyle, and she wrote poetry as well as insightful studies of contemporary writers such as Robert Browning.
Orr’s best students often went on to distinguished careers. Both Blanche Colton Williams and Rosa Peebles earned doctorates and became chairs of departments of English. Frances Jones Gaither became a best-selling novelist, chronicling the Old South. Along with teaching, Orr was a frequent lecturer at literary and cultural clubs throughout Mississippi and gave a December 1906 talk on Browning at the University of Mississippi that the school’s chancellor found exceptional.
In 1913, after years of conflict with the Industrial Institute and College’s president, Henry Whitfield (later the governor of Mississippi), Orr resigned from the faculty. At the time she said, “I have desired, above everything else, the mental enfranchisement of the girls of Mississippi. I have tried to help them to realize and express themselves.”
Orr subsequently devoted herself to the cause of voting rights for women, twice serving as president of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association. Following the death of Orr’s mother in 1917, Orr and Paslay moved to New York City, where Orr resided until she died on 21 November 1955. Orr maintained lifelong correspondences with many former students, and her brownstone became a stopping place for many visitors and migrants from Mississippi. On 30 October 1954, the school where she had spent so much of her life dedicated the Orr Chapel in recognition of her contributions.
- Myra Mason Lindsey, “Life of Pauline Orr,” Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Rosa Peebles, “Remembrance of Miriam Greene Paslay,” Mississippi University for Women Archives (1932)
- Bridget Smith Pieschel and Stephen Robert Pieschel, Loyal Daughters: One Hundred Years at Mississippi University for Women, 1884–1984 (1984)
- Stephen Pieschel, “The Orrs of Orr’s Hill,” Special Collections, Mississippi University for Women (1985)
- Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, ed. Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill, and Susan Ditto (2003)