The history of William Carey University, a Baptist institution with campuses in Hattiesburg and Biloxi, reflects intellectual and cultural movements that have drawn Mississippians into a wider world during the twentieth century. In 1906 in the “southern suburbs” of Hattiesburg, W. I. Thames founded South Mississippi College, which burned four years later. Methodist timber baron W. S. F. Tatum then donated the site to Baptists, who wanted to educate women but did not want to admit them to Mississippi College. Opened in September 1911 under Pres. W. W. Rivers, Mississippi Woman’s College continued operation in 1912 under the direction of J. L. Johnson Jr., who served as president until his death in 1932. By 1925 Woman’s College had gained a three-hundred-thousand-dollar endowment and was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Pursuing what its leaders called “the highest type of Southern Womanhood” and “in no sense sectarian,” Mississippi Woman’s College became one of the South’s most noted Christian colleges for women. Faculty had studied at Mississippi, Tulane, Brown, California, Virginia, Cornell, Chicago, and Columbia. At a time when sixteen passenger trains entered Hattiesburg daily and Camp Shelby loomed nearby, campus rules prohibited young male callers, required chaperones for trips to town, and prescribed inspection of student mail by the president and lady principal.
Mississippi Baptists suspended their $10,000 annual subvention during the depression, when W. E. Holcomb was serving as the school’s president. Woman’s College accrued a $103,000 deficit, lost its accreditation, and closed in 1940. During World War II campus buildings became housing for officers at Camp Shelby. The college reopened in 1946 under the presidency of Irving E. Rouse, who labored to keep it in operation with fewer resources and only one hundred students. In 1953 Woman’s College became coeducational, and in April 1954 the trustees renamed it William Carey College in honor of an English Baptist botanist, linguist, missionary, and social reformer.
On Rouse’s retirement in 1956 the board of trustees selected thirty-two-year-old Virginian J. Ralph Noonkester as president. Noonkester led Carey to reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1958 and directed a building and enrollment boom over the next three decades. In 1965 trustees agreed by one vote to admit African American students. The first African Americans who enrolled, Vermester Jackson and Linda Brown, were honor students from nearby Rowan High School. Desegregation brought angry letters from clergy who wished to separate either church from state or black from white, and someone burned a cross in front of the president’s home. Subsequent growth cast a different light on such controversy. In 1968 William Carey College acquired New Orleans’s Mather School of Nursing; eight years later, the college purchased the Gulf Coast Military Academy property in Gulfport, and it became William Carey College on the Coast.
James W. Edwards served as William Carey’s president from 1989 to 1996, overseeing an expanded program for church vocations students and an increase in faculty. Edwards’s successor, Larry Kennedy, who occupied the president’s office until 2006, directed extensive renovations and new construction on the Hattiesburg campus, including nursing and education classroom buildings and a sports complex, which bears his name. In 2005 the Gulfport campus in particular suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina, and it was replaced by the William Carey University–Tradition Campus in Biloxi, which opened in August 2009. In 2006, the college’s centennial, it began to operate as William Carey University.
The university is divided into the Ralph and Naomi Noonkester School of Arts and Letters, the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, the School of Business, the School of Education, the Donald and Frances Winters School of Music and Ministry Studies, the College of Health Sciences, and the College of Osteopathic Medicine, which graduated its inaugural class in 2014. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, William Carey University served more than 4,000 students, including roughly 2,300 undergraduates. The school’s motto retains the extended version of William Carey’s “deathless sermon” delivered in Nottingham, England, in 1792: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
- Mississippi Woman’s College, Annual Register, 1911–53
- J. Ralph Noonkester, unpublished memoir
- William Carey College Catalog (1954–2017)
- William Carey University website, www.wmcarey.edu