A History of Clarke College
By Marian Graham Thornton
Pictured Left: Clarke College Chapel 1915.
Clarke College grew out of an idea that East Mississippi needed a Baptist institution of higher learning. This was first publicly expressed at the General Association Meeting of Mississippi Baptists in 1907. The death of Rev. N. L. Clarke in 1906 spurred the movement to establish a Baptist College in East Mississippi. The Mt. Pisgah Association was first to go on record as being in favor of establishing such an institution. A number of rallies were held in the interest of Baptist higher education in 1907. The climax of these rallies was a rally at the Newton Baptist Church in October 1907 that resulted in the selection of a committee to choose the site for a Baptist college in East Mississippi and a Board of Trustees to operate the college. The choice of the name came from the sentiment expressed by a trustee, We must name her for a great man.
The town of Newton launched a major effort to secure the proposed college, establishing a committee to raise funds to build the college and another committee to secure a Newton site. Despite competition from towns in the area, Newton was chosen the site for the Baptist college at a meeting of area Baptists in November 1907, manly due to the fact that it was on a railroad crossing and it had a healthful site. The college building committee met on April 16, 1908 and let contracts from construction of three buildings. The formal opening of Clarke Memorial College occurred on October 1, 1908 with 40 students present for registration.
Pictured Right & Below: Boys Dormitory at Clarke College.
Under President S. B. Culpepper, Clarke enrolled 114 students its first full session. The second session (1909) 148 students were enrolled. By the third session, enrollment was up to 200, but Clarke was deeply in debt, needing contributions. In 1911 a committee met to coordinate Clarke College and Mississippi Colleges academic programs. In 1913 Rev. S. B. Culpepper was succeeded as president by Prof. M. P. Bush, who served as acting president until Dr. M.O. Patterson took office.
From the very beginning, Clarke combined a classical curriculum of offerings with religious education. In 1915 coursework included Latin, Greek, English, mathematics, Voice, Piano, and Expression. The college also provided extra-curricular programs including a literary society, college annual, boys varsity baseball and basketball, and girls basketball and tennis.
Clarke tried to accomplish the impossible by creating a quality education on a modest budget. Most of its students were from the small towns and rural communities of east Mississippi and virtually all came from families with limited incomes. Tuition was held low, benefactors were sought to offset operating costs, and the college maintained a work-study program for students who could not afford the full tuition. Students worked part-time as janitors and groundskeepers or in the library or cafeteria. A number of the students also worked at the college dairy that supplied milk to the cafeteria.
Many of the students attending Clarke also enrolled with less than a high school education. A pre-college program was offered to these students in order to help them earn their high school diploma before pursuing additional coursework.
This rapid turnover in chief administrative officers and Clarkes financial difficulties led to uncertainly about Clarkes future and in December 1913, Clarke Colleges Board of Trustees requested that the college be turned over to the Mississippi Baptist Convention. On March 17, 1914, this was accomplished at a meeting of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. This request was granted on the condition that the college be only a junior college designed to feed the Baptist senior colleges in the state. It retained its secondary department.
Clarke still was laboring under a $25,000 debt. In March 1915, M. O. Patterson resigned as president and was succeeded by R. A. Venable who served only one year. T. A. J. Beasley was asked to accept the position, but refused and Bryan Simmons was chosen. From 1908 to 1930 there were ten presidents. During this period the enrollment continued to grow. During the early 1920s Clarke received $12, 500 from the Southern Baptist Churches $75,000 campaign with the stipulation the Board of Trustees raise an additional $2,500. In 1926 the Standardization Committee of the Mississippi Department of Education visited the Clarke campus and certified them as an accredited junior college.
The mid and late 1920s were difficult economic times for Clarke College with it being $35,000 in debt by the late 1920s. A joint meeting of the Clarke Board of Trustees and the Education Commission agreed to raise additional funds if Newton would also raise funds, but at a special meeting of the Mississippi Baptist Convention there was a vote taken to close Clarke College. There was such a local outcry against that position, that another special session was called on July 15, 1930 to rescind the previous decision. That special session also agreed to liquidate Clarkes $40,000 debt and borrow money to fund Clarkes operation. However, at the regular session of the Mississippi Baptist Convention that year, there was another vote to close Clarke College. A group of East Mississippi Baptists sought to lease Clarke College for five years and this agreement was approved by the Board of Trustees on April 13, 1931.
Clarke College remained a state accredited institution under the Clarke College Holding Commission. S. L. Stringer was chosen president, but in 1935 was succeeded by Dr. C. Z. Holland. On April 16, 1937 the college was leased to W. L. McMullan, who served as president from 1937 to 1938. In 1940 W. L. McMullan surrendered the charter and lease to Freeman E. May who served as president from 1940 to 1942. Dr. J. L. Boyd of Meridian was selected to replace him.
At the end of World War II Clarke began to increase its academic offerings for returning veterans of the war. As a result, Clarke began emerging from the difficult times of the Great Depression and there was a move to return Clarke to the control of the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
In 1945 control of Clarke College was returned to the Mississippi Baptist Convention. The previous year W. E. Greene was chosen president of Clarke College, serving in that capacity through 1954. During those years, Clarkes enrollment reached 400-500 students.
In 1952 Clarke College received its initial accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Deficit spending led to a change in administration in 1953 with W. E Greene being replaced by Lowery Compere. Dr. Compere served as president from 1955 to 1971. During his administration the women’s dormitory, men’s dormitory, science building, and Fine Arts building were constructed. Also the sub-collegiate program was dropped during his administration.
In the mid 1960s and 1970s, however, deficits began to occur as enrollment dropped and the college began to cover these deficits by spending quasi-endowed funds.
In 1976 the colleges charter was amended to change its name to Clarke College, omitting the word Memorial. In 1977 Dr. Compere retired and S. L. Harris became president. Dr. Harris served only eighteen months and was replaced by Dr. A. C. Johnson who served through 1981.
In the fall of 1980 Clarke Colleges Board of Trustees, facing the problem of decreasing enrollment and annual deficits, faced against the prospects of the closing of the college. They presented this problem to the Baptist State Education Commission who in November 1980 recommended that the control of Clarke College be transferred to Mississippi College. This move was made on August 1, 1981, with Clarke losing both its president and its board of trustees.
The union of Clarke College with Mississippi College lasted for ten years. Facing continued financial deficits and declining enrollment, Clarke College was officially closed at the end of the 1991-1992 academic term. Its closing, though, did not diminish the legacy of many young men and women who were trained for Christian service throughout its seventy-five year existence.