Mississippi University for Women’s new name recommendation is scheduled for Monday, and if it isn’t Reneau University, “surprised” will describe the many people who have followed this process for almost a year.
MUW President Claudia Limbert announced last fall that she wanted to change the name of MUW to something more modern and marketable, recognizing that the Columbus liberal-arts institution had admitted men since 1982.
Limbert’s news will close the campus phase of the process, but bigger guns will be at work, if real change is to occur.
So, why Reneau?
Throughout most of the name-change process, many MUW watchers clamored for Welty University to honor perhaps The W’s most famous alumna, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty of Jackson. Welty attended two years before transferring to Wisconsin.
But through a series of accidental bungles and purposeful choices, the Naming Committee, the university’s leadership and Miss Welty’s heirs decided individually against the choice.
In the end, the campus options remain Reneau University or Waverley University, reflecting upon a novel on change by Walter Scott or the Clay County plantation and golf course.
Bets may be off on Waverley precisely because of the two descriptions.
Limbert has the decision from campus, and it seems unlikely she will choose a Civil War reference or a name to be confused with a sport.
So, expect Reneau. But also know Limbert’s choice must gain final approval from the Institutions of Higher Learning and the Legislature.
Depending upon the politics, IHL may have to be the place to derail Reneau if it looks like it won’t fly with the Legislature.
Sallie Eola Reneau advocated for women’s higher education in the mid-1800s. Her passionate, persistent promotion of such an idea ultimately led to establishment of MUW’s precedessor, the Industrial Institute and College at Columbus, in 1884.
Early criticism of this choice came with claims she belonged to a slave-holding family, which could raise political eyebrows, especially in the Legislature.
But in anticipation of the choice, MUW enlisted one of the state’s pre-eminent historians, Dr. David Sansing of Oxford, to research Reneau and short-circuit those criticisms.
He has done so in a 19-page biographical sketch, complete with addendum and references, noting Reneau’s family had soldiers on both sides of the Civil War.
“Sallie was born into the Southern white middle class,” Sansing writes, “and was among the 74 percent of white Southerners in 1860 who did not live in slave owning families.”
Born May 21, 1837, in Tennessee, Sallie Reneau moved with her family to Mississippi when she was about 5. Her father, Nathaniel Smith Reneau, traveled quite a bit and left his two children with relatives because their mother had died with the birth of Sallie’s brother.
At age 18 fresh from her graduation from Holly Springs Female Academy, Reneau wrote Gov. John J. McRae, who presented the Legislature with her proposal for a state-supported female college. Her idea came in a country with no state supported female colleges.
Her idea was not for the Southern elite, Sansing notes, but for “the indigent and the opulent” to receive “the imperishable riches of a well cultivated mind,” in Reneau’s words.
Three times, the Legislature endorsed her proposals but did not appropriate any money for them. She twice asked the U.S. Congress for funds but was denied.
Her second try saw the Legislature establish at Oxford a co-equal to the University of Mississippi: the Reneau Female University of Mississippi, with Sallie as its principal and UM vice president.
As the war began, she also asked for state help to organize the “Mississippi Nightingales,” a women’s volunteer group to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers and to sew for them. This concept predated establishment of the International Red Cross.
When she didn’t get funding for this idea, she organized a Panola County society for work on a smaller scale.
After the war, she went back to teaching, but a few years later answered a call for help with the Yellow Fever epidemic in Germantown, Tenn.
She died there in October 1878.
Her obituary in the Memphis Daily Appeal hailed her as one who “laid down her life for her neighbors and friends.”
Mississippi’s U.S. Sen. James L. Alcorn declared that the Legislature “should erect over her remains some monument … worthy of this great scholar of the state which she was proud to have been a daughter.”
Whether that story will impress the upstream scrutiny is uncertain, but MUW officials are likely to insist the choice is worthy Monday.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Patsy’s blog, From the Front Row, on NEMS360.com.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal