Steve Mullen: For MUW, a Sallie Reneau-sized task

July 15, 2009

Steve Mullen - smullen@cdispatch.com

 

Where''s Sallie Reneau when you need her? 

 

Reneau was possibly the most persuasive woman Mississippian of her day. In 1856, at age 18, she convinced Mississippi''s governor and legislature to charter a state university for women -- never mind that such a thing had never been done before, in any state. 

 

Now, Reneau''s own name is on a very short list of proposed new names for the Mississippi University for Women. 

 

While Claudia Limbert, president of The W, won''t reveal her final choice for a new name for the college until Aug. 10, she did say that she will choose between two finalists -- Waverley and Reneau. The gender-neutral names are meant to broaden the school''s appeal to male students. 

 

The university, whether intentional or not, hinted it might be tipping in favor of Reneau when it circulated in recent weeks a biographical sketch of the 19th-century educator, commissioned by the school and prepared by retired Ole Miss professor David Sansing. 

 

The 16-page report outlines Reneau''s background and her efforts to start a state college for women. 

 

Sansing also dispelled two misconceptions about Reneau -- that she or her family owned slaves, and that she attempted to organize a group of women to fight as soldiers for the Confederacy. 

 

With the report, the university is seeking to make Reneau''s name more palatable to those opponents who say her image is insensitive to African Americans. 

 

Of course, her name has many opponents who dislike it not because of racial connotations, but because it isn''t Mississippi University for Women. They are more vocal, and in the end will be tougher to appease. 

 

 

 

Ahead of her time 

 

Indeed, Sansing''s sketch reveals a woman who, if she were alive today, would still be ahead of her time in many ways.  

 

Reneau was an 18-year-old recent graduate, embarking on a teaching career, when her plan to establish a state-funded teaching college reached the governor. Her letter so moved him that he endorsed her proposal, recommending the legislature enact it. This was at a time when there were no state-supported universities for women in the U.S. 

 

I wonder how many times, before or since, a letter from an 18-year-old, male or female, had such an impact on a state leader. 

 

And the legislature actually endorsed her proposal and chartered the school, to be built in Grenada where Reneau was teaching. But lawmakers didn''t fund it, and plans for the school eventually died -- overtaken by the more pressing matters of secession and a war against the North. 

 

 

 

Wartime organizer 

 

Reneau''s mother died in childbirth with her younger brother, shortly after the family moved to Mississippi from Tennessee. Sansing quotes records that show the family didn''t own slaves. Reneau''s father was a middle-class merchant, and was often away; she and her brother appeared to fend largely for themselves, living off and on with nearby relatives. 

 

Reneau''s father and brother both fought for the Confederacy, and her brother died during the war.  

 

In the months before the war began, Reneau, ever the organizer, again petitioned the governor, this time to form a group of "Mississippi Nightingales," who would "go around to the various camps ... to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers and to sew for those who might need it." 

 

Essentially, Reneau was proposing the Red Cross, which wouldn''t be formed until years later. 

 

The confusion comes in here: Reneau also proposed her group be issued pistols "to protect themselves in the lawless environment that parallels a state of war," and that they be issued uniforms. 

 

And in an early blast of feminist thought, Reneau asked the governor to pay her group the same wage as he might pay a group of men. 

 

In the end, the Nightingales weren''t funded, but Reneau still organized women in her own county to tend to soldiers in the field. 

 

Sansing outlines how future historians would focus on her request for guns, pay and uniforms, and leave out the actual intent of the group. 

 

 

 

Earlier attempts bore her name 

 

After the war, Reneau again took up her effort to establish a state-supported women''s college. 

 

And here is a good reason for MUW to be named for her: In a sense, it was named for her before. During the Reconstruction era, the legislature twice established the Reneau Female University of Mississippi, first placing it in Oxford, then Sardis. However, the school was never funded -- the same obstacle that blocked it before the war. 

 

Reneau moved to back to Tennessee in the mid-1870s. During an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1878, she organized a group to care for the sick. She, too, died of the disease, six years before another group of women including Annie Coleman Peyton and Olivia Valentine Hastings finally persuaded the legislature to fund a women''s university, this time in Columbus. 

 

 

 

A shot in the arm 

 

Today, MUW is the smallest Mississippi university; smaller than Mississippi Valley State; smaller than Alcorn State. Ole Miss'' medical center branch alone has nearly as many students as MUW. 

 

While enrollment fluctuates up and down year to year, fall enrollment in 2008 was about the same as where it was in 1990. 

 

Add to this a new challenge for the school that''s coming in just a few miles down the road. East Mississippi Community College is building a new nursing school, which will almost certainly funnel students away from MUW''s biggest program. The state College Board found there was a need for EMCC to have the program, over MUW''s objections. 

 

Back in 1994, I was a reporter in Oxford, and covered the Ayers college desegregation trial, which had been sent back to federal court there from the Supreme Court for a retrial. The College Board''s solution at the time was to close and consolidate schools. As part of the plan, The W would be shuttered -- something that had been seriously considered since a funding crisis in colleges in the late ''80s. 

 

With the economic downturn in full swing, a new state funding crisis is again upon us. I imagine talk of consolidation, whether serious or not, will come up again in coming years -- and MUW is still the smallest antelope in the herd. 

 

MUW desperately needs a shot in the arm, and a smart public relations campaign surrounding a new name could help reinvigorate the school. It at least could put the school back on the radar for incoming freshmen -- a group that''s dwindling in numbers at The W. 

 

While it''s up to the state College Board to say yea or nay on a new name, the final decision will rest with the Legislature. Opposition will be vocal. I fear legislators'' actions will be based more on politics than on the wishes of the College Board or of the university itself. 

 

What will The W be called a year from now? Whether it''s Reneau, Waverley, or something else, some Sallie Reneau-level persuasiveness will be needed to make it happen, whether or not the school seeks to bear her name. 

 

Steve Mullen is managing editor of The Dispatch. E-mail him at smullen@cdispatch.com.

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.