March 17, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: James M. Shelburne, 1912-1918

"... this prez got it into his head that Howard must be co-ed, and this idea we admit we adore..."

James M. ShelburneThe presidents who preceded James M. Shelburne made significant contributions to the welfare and status of Howard College, but none of their achievements are as visible as Shelburne's at the modern Samford University. Samford's music, education and journalism programs owe their creation to Shelburne. Samford's women students, who now significantly outnumber the men, have Shelburne to thank for establishing coeducation as well.

Shelburne, a Kentucky native with degrees from Georgetown College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was introduced to Howard College via Ruhama Baptist Church, his first pastorate. He served the Howard community as both pastor and professor during the early years of the century but eventually returned to Georgetown to earn a D.D. degree. When Howard College again called on his services in 1912, he was leading a church in Bristol, Virginia.

Shelburne eased into the presidency (and out of it, coincidentally) over a period of half a year. Howard's trustees elected him in the summer of 1912 but he didn't begin his service until January 1913.

A Prez Named Jimmy
Shelburne had strong connections to Alabama Baptist culture through Ruhama, Howard and through his wife, Martha Washington Crumpton, whose parents were highly regarded Alabama Baptists. At 46 years of age, he was 13 years younger than his predecessor. These factors may help explain how he was able to begin his presidency in as energetic and bold a fashion as he did.

Shelburne quickly ended Howard's military education program, a Howard tradition of over three decades, on the grounds that it was declining in popularity and interfered with the college's growing athletics program. More importantly, he arranged for a revolution in the form of the ten young women who enrolled as Howard students on September 11, 1913. From that day forward, Howard College was coeducational. Unfortunately, official records from Shelburne's era are all but silent on the return of coeducation. Perhaps the president had his three daughters in mind when he decided that women should have the opportunity for a Howard education.

Whatever his personal motivation, 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."

An anonymous student poem in the Entre Nous recorded a certain amount of foreseeable tension in the sudden cultural change.

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.

Many "Firsts"
Shelburne was responsible for many impressive "firsts" at Howard College, and more than a few of these benefited the women students.

In 1915, Howard became the first college in the South Atlantic region to offer journalism courses. Journalism was given departmental status the following year and in that program a number of women gained a professional education unavailable even to most men in the region. The journalism program created Howard's student newspaper, The Crimson, still publishing almost a century later.

Shelburne created the position of Dean of Women to support the coeds as well as teach. In 1915 he appointed to that position Nannie Hiden, who, in an interview with a female student journalist, railed against the injustices of official sexism and predicted the ultimate victory of suffrage even in the conservative South.

In 1916 alone, Lula Mehaffey became Howard's first female graduate since 1898, Howard held its first coed party, and the Howard women formed the college's first sorority (Theta Xi) and its first women's basketball team. The following year, the college's 75th anniversary, Howard College heard its first female commencement speaker.

Shelburne also established Howard's departments of music and education and the first student employment office.

Howard's relationship with the city of Birmingham had sometimes been strained due to both economic and cultural conflicts, but Shelburne promoted engagement with Birmingham, not just through its Baptist churches, but also through its other religious, cultural and economic institutions.

Notwithstanding the old fights with students over the corrupting influence of the city, Howard's leaders welcomed the extension to East Lake of Birmingham's trolley service. Starting in March 1913, Birmingham beckoned at 10-minute intervals, but discipline problems actually seem to have declined. In 1915, determined to create a department of music, Shelburne added to the faculty professional music educators from the city's Southern School of Musical Art. He called on a well-known city bandleader to create and instruct a Howard College band. Shelburne also added to the faculty the Rabbi of Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El, who later served on the college's fundraising committees (it has been said that in fundraising Shelburne promoted the cause of education above the cause of denomination).

Shelburne also led Howard to join the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, noting that, "Howard wants an active part in the upbuilding of Birmingham, and we want to be more closely identified with the civic and industrial activities of the city."

The Great War
The War in Europe made "upbuilding" of the college somewhat more difficult after 1914, but the greater problems for Howard arrived after the U.S. entered the war in the spring of 1917. Enrollment for the fall session dropped 20 percent as male students entered military service. The war ultimately claimed Howard's president as well. In the fall of 1917 Shelburne requested, and was granted, a leave of absence to enter uniformed service and supervise educational programs at Camp Wheeler in Macon, Georgia. College Dean J. C. Dawson managed Howard in Shelburne's absence.

With the president in uniform and Howard's male students preparing for war, the coeds spent their free time making clothing for soldiers in a specially outfitted knitting room in Renfroe Hall. As further contribution to the war effort, Howard undertook to raise as much of its own food as possible, purchasing hens to supply eggs and a mule to plow three acres of campus for vegetable crops.

Shelburne returned to Howard in January 1918 in order to help raise funds for the college's endowment. The fundraising went well, and there was little reason to think that Shelburne would not return at war's end to lead further dramatic growth at the college. But, like other of Howard's pastor-presidents, Shelburne decided in March 1918 that his calling to ministry was greater than his calling to educational administration. He resigned the presidency to serve First Baptist Church of Gadsden. Howard College faced an unsettled few years.

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