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Howell pens unique town and gown history of Clinton

By Janet S. Lee

Dr. Walter HowellPartial histories have been previously written detailing the early settlement of Mt. Salus as it evolved into Clinton through the mid-twentieth century. But noted former MC professor, City leader and writer Dr. Walter Howell, appointed the official City historian by Mayor Phil Fisher, has now produced the definitive city history.
Town and Gown: The Saga of Clinton and Mississippi College took Howell five years to complete, as he combed through the archives of multiple county and local newspapers, minutes of Board of Aldermen and City meetings, minutes of Mississippi College board meetings, the state Baptist historical paper (The Baptist Record), and copies of the student paper at MC (The Collegian).
Howell encountered some surprises that debunked commonly-held ideas, but he was single-minded in working from a factual basis, rather than to simply repeat often-told tradition. As he explains, “Nobody had written Clinton’s history from primary source material, nor had the total story been told.”
Clinton’s mayor, Phil Fisher, was supportive of Howell’s monumental task.

“It is important to know our community history,” Fisher said. “Then you can better understand the decisions made and how those decisions affect our lives today.”
The 440-page book is chock-full of old photographs to catch the eye of the quick page-turner but also meticulously footnoted and documented to satisfy the historical scholar. Howell is uniquely qualified for telling the tale, having taught hundreds of students in the history department of Mississippi College over a thirteen-year period but also with the additional perspective of four years as a Clinton alderman (1977-1981) and one term as the city’s mayor (1981-1985).
Through his research, he quickly concluded that the history of Clinton is inseparable from the history of Mississippi College. In the book’s preface, he flatly states that “when the town suffered, the College suffered; when the College prospered, the town prospered. Clinton and Mississippi College came together when the plat of Clinton was filed in Hinds County Chancery Court, February, 1829. They have been together ever since.”
Mississippi College’s president, Dr. Lee Royce, echoes that sentiment.
“Mississippi College and its hometown of Clinton maintain a vibrant and closeknit partnership today, a relationship that dates back nearly two centuries.”
While a casual observer may think that Clinton is like other college towns, Howell says that is not the case: there has always been a denominational influence, though not necessarily Southern Baptist.

Town and Gown book cover Dr. Howell“The town implored both Methodists and Presbyterians to run the college during some lean times following the Panic of 1837,” explains Howell. The Methodist Annual Conference ran the institution until October, 1841; the Clinton Presbytery assumed responsibility in January, 1842. Mississippi College reopened in the fall of 1842 after a two-year closure, under the guiding hand of Clinton Presbyterians.
Denominational division among the Presbyterians, as well as the lack of an endowment, led to a watershed moment in the town/college history: a plea for Baptists to take on the college whose fate was so important to the town itself. Town trustees met with Baptist trustees-elect to transfer authority and fiduciary responsibilities on November 3, 1850. But, after being closed for two of the past ten years because of financial instability, the future of Mississippi College, now owned by the Baptists of the state, was marginal, at best, in 1850.
Clinton, and Mississippi College, who sent its own Mississippi Rifles to fight in the War Between the States, weathered the war and Reconstruction years. But the Clinton Riot of 1875 and the subsequent murder of black Hinds County Legislator Charles Caldwell were violent, bloody stains on Clinton’s history. Yet the South as a whole was able to convince the North that Reconstruction governments were corrupt and needed to be removed from power. In 1876, Reconstruction in Mississippi and in Clinton came to a close.
Howell details Clinton’s growth throughout the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, where the dependence of college and town on each other was not questioned. Most members of the City’s leadership in the early to mid-20th century were faculty or staff of the College, and town and gown settled into a comfortable pattern.
Through his three years of research, Howell studied important names in MC history; Hillman, Provine, Dotson, and McLemore; interviewed descendants of some of the first families in Clinton, who cherish the Leake-Johnston, Whitfield-Price, Fox-Facucette, and Quisenberry names still today; and tried to capture the unique relationship that has always existed between “town and gown.”
Another watershed moment in the shared college/town history, says Howell, occurred in 1968, when MC signed compliance with the Civil Rights Act. Though not a popular action with many of the College’s trustees and other constituencies, “It was inevitable and opened up enrollment. The College simply had to do it or lose potential students,” particularly those with GI benefits and other federal aid packages.
Howell thinks the town has matured and is more than just Mississippi College today; yet the hometown college has had “a tremendous impact on our public school system and just a positive impact in general.”
“Our campus is just a few feet away from the Brick Streets of Olde Towne Clinton,” Royce said, “and we enjoy a closeness reflecting good town/gown relations. That partnership just gets better with each passing year. Dr. Howell’s new book effectively documents the history of that relationship since MC’s birth in 1826.’’
Howell found the experience of writing the exhaustive history “fulfilling. I thoroughly enjoyed the people I got to meet, including those I ‘met’ only through the research.”
Though the Clinton/Mississippi College shared history is now recorded, Howell’s keen intellect, search for historical relevance, and writing ability will not lie idle for long. He is already working on a short history of his own church, Clinton’s First United Methodist.
Town and Gown: The Saga of Clinton and Mississippi College is available for $29.95 in Clinton at Mississippi Discount Drugs; Pentimento BookStore; the Mississippi College bookstore; and the Clinton Visitor Center. In Jackson, the book can be found at Lemuria.

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