The period immediately following the Civil War was especially difficult for Dr. James C. Furman, founder and president of the university. In 1866, classes resumed with 140 students enrolled, but that first year proved to be a rude awakening. In a letter to another pastor dated October 13th, 1866, Dr. Furman describes the difficulties of attempting to resume classes. Those who formerly supported the University financially “have either been absolutely ruined or greatly reduced in circumstances.” On top of that, a severe drought virtually destroyed all chance of economic improvement in the agrarian South Carolina: “the corn crop is…a very great failure, and the cotton crop is not much better.” This drought intensified an already large financial crisis, making it harder for Furman, with its endowment depleted, to pay fixed salaries to its professors. As Dr. Furman notes in that same letter, “Income to the professors, therefore, is small; for now, instead of receiving a fixed salary, every instructor depends upon tuition fees.”
In spite of these difficulties, Dr. Furman was excited that, after completing one term the University still had “one hundred and twelve names… more students than the most sanguine hoped for.” This bright spot in Dr. Furman’s eyes, however, would quickly change. In 1867 only 45 students returned. The new poverty, exacerbated by the drought, was having its effect. There was no university catalogue published in 1867 or 1868, presumably because the funds were not available to complete even that small task. In response to this, in 1868, two professors resigned because they were extended offers from other institutions that could guarantee them fixed salaries.
With two professorships vacant, and insufficient funds to continue, Dr. Furman faced perhaps the greatest crisis of his presidency. He and another professor at Furman were asked to investigate the prospects for the university’s future and present a report to the South Carolina Baptist Convention. The other professor advised that they close the doors, but Dr. Furman eloquently and powerfully resisted. In a statement on November 25, 1868, he made a speech before the Convention that is recorded in his personal documents. After mentioning the two vacancies in the faculty, Dr. Furman said, “One of your agents thinks that the best way to meet the emergency is to close the doors….” But Dr. Furman goes on to argue that between twenty and thirty young men have expressed interest in enrolling for the next term, and “the closing of our doors, in the case of these, and doubtless of others, must…send them to Wofford or to Erskine. At any rate, we shall lose them as pupils, not only for one year but forever.” In short, Dr. Furman persuaded the Convention to open the doors to the university again, hiring whoever may be found to fill the faculty vacancies and surviving another year. Dr. Furman’s prediction was true: the enrollment in 1869 was 69 students.
Besides bringing Furman University to its knees financially, the Reconstruction Era forced uncommon flexibility on the moral rules and codes governing student behavior. We find a fascinating case discussed in the minutes of a July 2, 1869 meeting of the Furman Board of Trustees. Apparently, “fist fighting by several of the students” had taken place, along with “the use of corrupt and profane language” in a recent unexplained incident. According to rule number fifteen in the Rules of Discipline section of the 1869 catalogue, these were unequivocal grounds for expulsion. However, with only 69 students enrolled, and apparently several of them involved in the skirmish, the Trustees were essentially forced to allow the students to remain enrolled. Their tuition dollars were vital to the continuance of the university. “Resolved that in another time and under other circumstances the faculty would have felt themselves called upon to give more signal expression of their disapprobation, but in view of the fact that the rigid application of discipline might cut off some of the parties from the enjoyment of educational advantages—a great calamity at any time, and specially so in the present condition of the South…” At length, they simply pardoned the students on the basis of their repentant attitudes.
The Reconstruction era placed greater demands on Dr. Furman than perhaps any other period of his life. After the 1869 school year, it would be several more years before the school was back on its proverbial feet. But in this time of crisis, Dr. Furman was indeed, as one of his successors said, “the solitary link between an honorable past and a black future.”
click image to enlarge
Cook, Harvey Toliver. The Life Work of James Clement Furman. 1926. Greenville, SC: Furman, 1926.
Furman, James C. Letter to J. H. Luther, Rev. 13 Oct. 1866. James C. Furman Papers. Furman University Library, Special Collections, Greenville, SC.
Furman University Board of Trustees. July 2, 1869. Furman University Library, Special Collections, Greenville, SC.
Daniel, Robert Norman. Furman University, A History. Greenville, SC: Furman University, 1951.
South Carolina Baptist Convention Minutes. Furman Board of Trustees. Greenville, SC: Furman University, 1869.