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Ask Rufus: The W, 165 years of quality women's education






Many W alums will read the above title and say "but the centennial wasn't that long ago." Well, it wasn't but it was. If all that seems confusing, it really isn't. MUW opened as the Industrial Institute and College in 1885. However, it was not a totally new school as it evolved out of the 1847 Columbus Female Institute which closed in 1884 so that it could be transferred to the state and reopen as a state "girls college" the next year. That would make The W a year older than Ole Miss. 


Although The W does not claim back to the Columbus Female Institute, you could make a strong case for doing so. Auburn University in Alabama claims its beginnings go back to East Alabama Male College, a Methodist school established in 1856. That is a precedent that The W could follow with the older Columbus Female Institute whose buildings and grounds became the new school. 


On Friday Sam Kaye and I were sitting around discussing the little recognized role of The Columbus Female Institute in the origins of The W. The Columbus Female Institute was established under the initiative of Colonel A. A. Kincannon on May 15, 1847, and its constitution approved a week later. Its charter was approved by the state legislature on March 4, 1848. 


I have heard it said The Columbus Female Institute was not a real college. The school actually had both a preparatory department and a collegiate department. Look at the curriculum put in place by the school's board of trustees and that belief doesn't hold. Their minutes reflect the following courses of study were required for students in the collegiate area: "reading, analysis, penmanship, analytical orthography, arithmetic, geography, history, English grammar, composition, Latin, Greek, botany, algebra, rhetoric, geometry, trigonometry, muorology, zoology, natural philosophy, intellectual philosophy, moral philosophy, evidence of Christianity, logic, chemistry, physiology, bookkeeping and English literature." That was at the time a college and not a preparatory curriculum. 


The interest by the trustees in making the school a state women's college was not a sudden venture and parallels the push for better women's educational opportunities in Mississippi. In 1856 Sallie Reneau began a drive to improve women's education and began working toward the establishment of a state female college. She was not successful but laid the groundwork for future efforts. Annie Peyton assumed a leading role in the cause and after years of struggle, finally got a positive response from the legislature. 


On June 17, 1872, trustees of the Columbus Female Institute met with Chancellor Lyon of the University of Mississippi and decided to offer its campus as the female division of the State University. However, the legislature failed to act on the offer. Mindful of its role, the Female Institute in 1878 rejected a suggestion to offer its campus to the proposed A & M College (Miss State). 


On March 12, 1884, the efforts begun years before by Sallie Reneau and continued by Annie Peyton paid off as the state legislature established the Industrial Institute and College for the education of girls "in the arts and sciences." The trustees of the Columbus Female Institute took an active role in the legislative efforts. The legislature had begun considering a bill establishing a state female college in February of 1884 and on Feb. 15, the trustees began taking the steps necessary to enable the campus to be donated the state. 


The trustees' plan called for the stockholders of the school to sell it to persons who would then donate the school and campus to the state. On March 15, a committee was sent to Jackson by the trustees with authority to do what was needed to secure Columbus as the location of the state female college. On June 19, 1884, after the trustees had published notice of a public sale, James Sykes, Charles Locke and James Bell bought The Columbus Female Institute. They paid $100 for the school property so that it could then be legally donated to the state. 


The Columbus offer was accepted and the state then added a clock tower to the belfry on "Old Main" (now Callaway Hall) and built the Orr Building next door. In addition, Moore Hall where Whitfield Hall is now located and the other buildings of the former Columbus Female Institute were reused. In October 1885 The Industrial Institute and College opened its first session at what the year before had been The Columbus Female Institute.  


The establishment of a state female college made national news and was the subject of an illustrated article in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper of New York on July 4, 1885. The paper reported that the grounds and buildings acquired for the college "... will be one of, if not the most capacious and imposing buildings for the purpose in the country." The account concluded by saying; "In this Institute and College, Mississippi has set an example which we hope to see followed by other states, until our girls everywhere can gain such an education as will fit them for the practical and profitable employments of life." 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]



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