Samford University The BelltowerJanuary 2004

Most Satisfactory Students: Samford and Coeducation (Part Two)

".The return of the 1898 graduate to honor the next generation of Howard women made a neat circle, but even more change was on the way."

Samford University's first experiment in coeducation ended in 1898 with the graduation of Eugenia Weatherly. Over a decade passed before women returned to Howard College as students. Faculty spouses and young women from the East Lake community were involved in the culture of the college in the interim, but served only in supporting roles. They helped produce Entre Nous and served as sponsors of various student organizations. Their service to the college's cadet corps seems to have been an important and highly regarded role for women. Ironically, the college permanently became coeducational the same year it abandoned the military program that had provided such a prominent role for women between 1898 and 1913.

The Women Return

Having never renounced its belief in the value of coeducation, it seems that Howard College was free to begin admitting women at any time. Newly appointed college president James Madison Shelburne decided that the fall of 1913 was the right time for women to return as students. Unfortunately, official records of the period are all but silent on the subject of this significant change. Shelburne didn't mention coeducation in an open letter to the Alabama Baptist shortly after the college opened that fall. Howard's trustees, in their November 1913 report to the Alabama Baptist Convention, offered only a brief note about the change. "The college now admits to its classes resident young women," they wrote. "Ten of these young women have matriculated and are proving themselves to be most satisfactory students."

It's not clear what the trustees meant by the term "resident" because Howard had no housing facilities for female students until 1920, when women occupied the house of a professor on sabbatical leave. Most likely, the 10 women who came to Howard in the fall of 1913, and the five others who joined them later in the year, lived with relatives in the East Lake community or were boarded in the community through some special arrangement with the college.

"This Idea We Admit We Adore"

A tiny cartoon tucked away in the back of the 1914 Entre Nous provides a clue about the first experiences of the women who arrived on campus in the fall of that academic year. It depicts a young woman walking through the center of campus as hundreds of disembodied eyes watch her from the windows of the surrounding buildings. Women were not strangers to the campus, but to see them attending classes and otherwise participating in the academic life of the college for their own benefit rather than in support of the young men must have been a novelty.

The same Entre Nous offers many other significant insights into the experiences of the Howard women. Thanks to the students' thoroughness in documenting their own culture, we learn that the women quickly formed Howard's third literary society, (all the women joined, apparently) and named it in honor of the man who had returned coeducation to the college. We also learn that women held three of five freshman class officer's positions. A "Chronological History of the Freshman Class" offers several other items of interest:

"Oct. 22, 23--First six weeks tests. Boys' grades outstripped by those of co-eds."

"Feb. 25--Four inches of snow. Faculty and co-eds have battle--latter victorious."

"March 6--Tests. Boys beat some of the co-eds."

As interesting as these items are, none can rival an anonymous student poem from that landmark year. The "Jimmy" referred to here is President Shelburne:

"Once there was a prez named Jimmy, in size not so tall nor skinny,
and gray hair he had galore.
Now this prez got it into his head that Howard must be co-ed,
and this idea we admit we adore.
But what is bothering us is this prez raises a fuss
when the co-eds mix too much with the boys.
But, to be just, we guess we just must
with the co-eds raise very little noise."

Predictably, it seems the male and female students got along even better than Shelburne would have liked.

At the end of the 1913-14 academic year, Eugenia Weatherly King attended the annual alumni banquet to speak on the subject of "Howard and Coeducation." The return of the 1898 graduate to honor the next generation of Howard women made a neat circle, but even more change was on the way.

The Advantage of Coeducation

In 1915 Shelburne hired Nanny M. Hiden to serve as Howard's dean of coeducation and chair of the new education department. Hiden came to Howard from graduate school at Columbia University, where she was the only woman among 500 men. Not long after her arrival a female student journalist interviewed Hiden for the new student newspaper, the Crimson. In the published interview, Hiden recounted the roots of her passion for suffrage and coeducation:

"When I was a child growing up into young womanhood, I resented the fact most bitterly that the state university of my own state denied women the privileges it granted to men. My brothers could go and do so-and-so, while I was debarred. Taxation without representation seemed tyrannical to me, and I made up my mind that when I grew to womanhood, that if it was possible, I was going to the legislature and change that. Suffrage is bound to obtain in the South. I may be dead and gone before it does, but it is inevitable. And why not? Women are doing as good work as men; many of them have to shoulder the burden of providing for their families, earning bread and butter and paying taxes on property...and they are not even allowed to attend certain universities. The advantage that coeducation has for women is that is the only way that they can be admitted to college privelages accorded to men."

Hiden had moved on from Howard by the time suffrage did finally "obtain in the South" and in every other part of the nation. We can only speculate about her influence on the young women of Howard College. One of her charges, Annie Merle Haggard, had joined the Howard Law Club by 1916, perhaps inspired by Hiden's vision of women in the state legislature.

1916 was another milestone year for Howard women in other ways, too.

  • Lula Mehaffey, whose graduation photograph accompanies this article, became Howard's first female graduate since 1898.
  • Howard held its first coed party.
  • The Howard women formed the college's first sorority (Theta Xi) and its first women's basketball team.
  • Howard created the South Atlantic region's first journalism courses, in which a number of women gained a professional education unavailable even to most men in the region.

The next year, the college's 75th anniversary, Mrs. G. H. Mathis of Gadsden, Ala., became the first woman to serve as a Howard College commencement speaker. She was a farmer, a nationally-known lecturer on economics and a vocal advocate of agricultural reform. According to the Crimson, she had been "declared by many to be Alabama's most valuable citizen." She would have been a remarkable choice for commencement speaker in any year, but especially so in that Jubilee year. In this and many other ways, Howard College under President Shelburne proved its values by its actions. As a result, in future years its "most satisfactory students" became journalists, biologists, artists, teachers, lawyers, musicians, pastors, voters and anything else they chose to become.

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