November 4, 2005

The Presidential Tradition

"... Ongoing disputes with the Alabama Baptist Convention over the status of ministerial students and religion faculty ended in 1886 with a victory for Murfee's insistence that Howard would not exempt ministerial students from the college's military and residence requirements, and would not allow the Convention to dictate faculty appointments..."

James T. MurfeeJames T. Murfee's tenure as president of Howard College (1871-1887) was exceptional in many ways, not least because Murfee didn't leave the college--the college left him. At 16 years, his service also was of exceptional length. In fact, Murfee's record as Samford's longest-serving president stood until the 1950s. His administration remains the fourth longest in the University's history.

Murfee, a native Virginian and alumnus of Virginia Military Institute became a professor of mathematics at the University of Alabama before the Civil War and served as both a lieutenant colonel of the 41st Alabama Regiment and commandant of the University of Alabama cadet corps. Reconstruction-era politics made Murfee feel unwelcome at UA after the war, so he brought his reputation for academic rigor and military discipline to struggling, debt-ridden Howard College in 1871.

Murfee seems to have thoroughly charmed the people of Marion, and he certainly supplied stable leadership to the college for the first time in over a decade. He revitalized the academic program by creating a new academic structure based on small class size and individual attention and practice, and created a Business School and a School of Military Art and Science within the college. He also imposed military discipline. Beginning in 1871, Murfee required students to wear gray military uniforms on public occasions. By the end of that decade military drill was a daily routine for many students and the college had begun to resemble a military academy.

Renewed appeals for financial support led the college out of debt by the early 1880s and even allowed the addition of new property, but the trustees' voiding of scholarship certificates sold before the war led to an eight-year breach of contract lawsuit against the college. That action ended in 1883 with a judgment for the plaintiff and a court order to auction off the college's property on the steps of the county courthouse to meet the resulting financial obligations. In 1884, two Howard trustees bought the college property at auction for $1,080 and presented the property to the Alabama Baptist Convention. With outright ownership and no remaining debt, the Convention saw that it might finally be able to build a solid endowment for the college. But some Howard supporters outside the county feared that new investment would be wasted in a waning Marion and with the college under the control of Murfee and the college's local trustees, who increasingly found themselves at odds with the Convention.

Ongoing disputes with the Convention over the status of ministerial students and religion faculty ended in 1886 with a victory for Murfee's insistence that Howard would not exempt ministerial students from the college's military and residence requirements, and would not allow the Convention to dictate faculty appointments. The entire ministerial board of the Convention resigned in protest, adding to growing tensions between the college's administrators and owners.

Also in 1886, increasing racial tensions in Marion erupted when Howard cadets surrounded and beat a black student from Lincoln Normal School, the student cut some of the students with a knife and a mob of white citizens subsequently threatened to burn down the school founded at the end of the Civil War to educate newly freed slaves. Lincoln was already pondering whether or not to stay in Marion or move to Montgomery or Birmingham, and the conflict with Howard actually bound together Lincoln's and Howard's fortunes. Lincoln supporters closely followed the growing debate among white Baptists over whether or not to move Howard, and Howard's trustees, largely opposing the relocation of their own school, circulated a petition calling for the removal of Lincoln Normal School from Marion.

In a telling letter to the Marion Standard newspaper, the editors of the Alabama Baptist explained why they had refused to print an article citing the Howard-Lincoln trouble as sufficient reason for moving Howard. "Just at that time the citizens of Marion with people all over the state, representing the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches were earnestly laboring with the legislature to have the negro normal school removed from that place," they wrote, "and it was gravely questioned as to whether or not they could succeed, and our judgment was, that should such an article...appear [about moving Howard College]...many members of the general assembly would refuse to vote for the removal of the negro college, and thus fasten on a long established white school community an institution [Lincoln] that was a positive menace to virtuous womanhood and helpless children."

So, race played a part in the debate about removing Howard College from its birthplace, but the college also was caught up in the tensions between rural and urban cultures and new and old economies and social structures. Murfee found himself at the center of this storm.

As Murfee fought with the Convention over the fate of the ministerial students, the Convention considered relocating the college and all parties warily eyed Lincoln Normal School, Birmingham boosters were searching for new institutions to serve their 15-year-old community. In 1886 the Convention met in Birmingham and appointed a committee to open talks with Birmingham land companies and consider the city's generous incentives for relocating Howard College to the area. Following rich promises of land and financial support, Howard College relocated to Birmingham's East Lake community in 1887.

The Marion Standard expressed outrage at Howard's removal. "A great act of injustice has been done the Baptists of Marion, who have so long and so faithfully worked to sustain the college, when the Baptists of North America were doing nothing," the editors wrote. "If another school is established in its place, Marion will not be injured a particle by the removal of Howard College." In fact, another school literally was established in Howard's place. The Convention returned the Marion property to the two trustees who had bought it at auction, and asked them to use the campus for the good of Marion. James Murfee, the only member of Howard's faculty who declined to follow the college to Birmingham, leased the college property for a year and established Marion Military Institute. The institute thrived and Murfee eventually acquired the property in trust from its owners.

In spite of his own misgivings about the removal of Howard, Murfee acted as peacemaker between Baptist factions divided by the move. In contrast to the bitterness and hurt feelings expressed by the Marion Standard, a letter from Murfee, published in the Alabama Baptist of August 5, 1887, expresses nothing but good will for Howard and its alumni:

To My Old Students and Friends:
These halls so dear to us all have been turned over to me for educational purposes; and I shall continue in them the same system of discipline and methods of instruction which I introduced in 1871.
I shall aim to train other young men as you were trained, and to make them like you in character, popularity and usefulness. The memory of your good deeds shall be preserved, and your worthy examples held up as models for your successors.
The hearts of the good people of Marion will ever be with you; and we hope you may often be inclined to revisit the old college home--the scenes amid which you developed those elements of character which have been the foundation of your success and happiness. You will find here open doors and a warm welcome--in the town and at the school.
Whenever an opportunity occurs, I shall rejoice to assist in extending your influence and promoting your welfare.

Ever Your Friend
J. T. Murfee

In the short term, at least, Murfee and other opponents of Howard's relocation were vindicated. Howard College arrived in Birmingham to find that the city's generous promises of support had evaporated.

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