Walter Hillman, Clinton’s “Citizen of the Century”
By City Historian Dr. Walter Howell
Mississippi celebrates the bicentennial of statehood this year, and communities across the state are looking at their own histories for that two-hundred year period. Clinton will recognize one of its most distinguished citizens of the past when historical markers are placed to honor Walter Hillman and Hillman College.
Hillman was a ﬁgure of nineteenth century Clinton and could be called the town’s “Citizen of the Century” for his many good deeds and heroic acts during and after the Civil War. Hillman was a man of great character, often called the “Conscience of Clinton.”
One of Walter Hillman’s good deeds came in 1863, when Clinton was briefly occupied during the Civil War. The people were on the verge of starvation, because Union and Confederate soldiers had “liberated” all food supplies and livestock they could ﬁnd. Hillman and William Dunton met with General Sherman and persuaded him to give rations to the
people of Clinton, black and white. They agreed to not share the food with “so-called” Confederate soldiers.
After the war, Hillman organized a small congregation of former slaves and arranged for them to hold church services in the bottom ﬂoor of the Mississippi College Chapel. He nurtured his fellow Christians for several years, helping them to buy property and build their own church, which today is the Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church on College Street.
Hillman also “rescued” Clinton’s two schools, the Central Female Institute and Mississippi College, from closure after the war. He secured a loan from the president of Brown University; and, with that money, the college was able to reopen in 1867. The trustees made Hillman their president, and he served until the debt was repaid in 1873. Then, he resigned from Mississippi College, but continued as president of the Central Female Institute.
Rev. Barnes Sears’ loan became a gift that allowed Hillman to put the $7,000 to good use. He bought and sold property and made small loans to people, like Sarah Dickey, when she started her Mount Hermon Seminary for Colored Females in 1875, and to Margaret Caldwell, the widow of the assassinated Charles Caldwell, when she bought property outside Clinton.
Walter Hillman’s most “heroic act” came when he faced an armed mob of Clinton whites who had just killed Charles Caldwell and his brother and would not allow the removal of their bodies. Hillman ignored the forty angry men who could easily have shot him. He and a friend loaded the bodies on a wagon and carried them to Caldwell’s home.
Walter Hillman served as president of the Central Female Institute for thirty-two years; and, when he retired in 1888, the trustees renamed the Institute “Hillman College.” Hillman died in 1894.