Betty Stone: In defense of a heroine

May 10, 2009

Betty Stone -

 

I have hesitated to write about the Mississippi University for Women name change because I have mixed feelings. Something surfaced, however, that I feel compelled to comment on. 

 

Just to clear the slate, my personal preference was Waverley, not because of the novels or the plantation, but because it sounded good, was somewhat geographic, and could accommodate the "W" nickname. It seemed to make at least as much sense as Rhodes does for Southwestern. 

 

Even so, I was appalled to read that the nomination of Reneau was repudiated because it offended some African-Americans. First of all, if Sallie Reneau''s family were slave-holders, she was no more personally responsible for the culture into which she was born than the less fortunate slaves were responsible for the circumstances of their births.  

 

Much has already been said about the fact that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other giants in our history were slave-owners. In some cases their behavior with those slaves was dishonorable. Are we to repudiate all they did that was good because they were part of a reprehensible practice? Slavery existed not only in this country, but others as well, and, shamefully, still exists in some of them today and in some form in unexpected places. 

 

What, then, would the NAACP have had Sallie Reneau do? Be an active abolitionist? 

 

No one should be expected to fight every war. Sallie Reneau had a different cause to support. She, along with Olivia Hastings and Annie Peyton, sought to right a different wrong. 

 

 

 

Another front line  

 

In the mid-1800s there was a prevailing bias against educating women. They were considered physically, intellectually and socially inferior. Some pompous men even proclaimed they would die if they were rigorously educated. 

 

In this country, Harvard had been educating men for 200 years before women had colleges. The University of Mississippi did not open classes to women until 1882, and even then they were prohibited from enrolling in the preparatory courses or living on campus. In itself, that concession was an effort to thwart the establishment of a women''s college. 

 

In 1882, when the Industrial Institute and College, which would become Mississippi State College for Women, and, later, MUW, was chartered, white women were the only segment of society for whom state-supported education was not available. Not only white men, but both black men and women had that opportunity. Tougaloo and the State Normal School at Holly Springs were in operation for them. Note that the date, 1882, was well after the close of the civil war. Several black legislators at that time supported the bill. 

 

 

 

A passionate advocate  

 

Of course, the struggle had been going on for over 20 years with Reneau at the forefront. She first proposed a women''s college in 1856. It was approved, but not funded. In 1872 she received approval for a female branch of the University, but again it went unfunded. The next year, in a third try, the measure was approved, but funding was pre-empted by Alcorn A&M, again providing for black students. Sallie Reneau died of yellow fever in 1878. She never saw her dream fulfilled. 

 

When the legislature finally both approved and funded the college in 1884, the law was passed by only one vote in the Senate and two in the House. 

 

Frankly, I don''t think any individuals have any more right to overlook or negate the efforts of Sallie Reneau, than those Americans who fail to acknowledge the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Have we forgotten that black men had the right to vote before any women? Or that not so long ago, when a woman married, anything she possessed became the property of her husband, as apparently she did herself?  

 

Supposedly that was the reason Great Britain''s Queen Elizabeth I never married; she wasn''t about to relinquish her position and authority, especially considering the price she paid for it.  

 

Don''t we remember that in Mississippi women could not serve on a jury until 1968? (The first case with women on the jury was here in Columbus. My husband was one of the attorneys. Peggy Cantelou was on the jury. The case involved possession of a dog.) 

 

Of course slavery was terrible, but it was not the only infraction against human rights. African-Americans would do better to protest the wrongs that are blatant today rather than try to abolish recognition of someone whose cause was for a different segment of society. 

 

With such faulty reasoning, women would never recognize the achievement of men. Should women have a chip on their shoulders because historically men have repressed them? Should there be animosity between the sexes? Heaven forbid! I like men. Also women. 

 

Am I incredibly na├»ve? I wish all of us could just be fair and kind to each other, regardless of race or gender, and acknowledge the achievements of all. Yeah, I guess that makes me simple-minded. Why can''t all of us just "do right"? 

 

Maybe Reneau is not the best name for the "W." Then again, maybe it is. I don''t know. But at least let no one denigrate such a heroine. 

 

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.