By RUTH MORGAN
For the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum
March is National Women’s Month. It is a time to reflect on the extraordinary accomplishments of women and honor their role in shaping the course of our history. Women have reached heights their mothers and grandmothers might only have imagined. Women now comprise nearly half of our workforce and the majority of students in our colleges and universities. They scale the skies as astronauts, expand our economy as entrepreneurs and business leaders, and serve our country at the highest levels of government and our Armed Forces.
This year is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political, and social achievements of women past, present, and future.
From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.
In this article, I have tried to give an account of some of our unsung and unnoticed women in Oktibbeha County. These women are integral to the fabric of our history and helped to settle, build and strengthen our county. These women and their clubs have given our county a rich heritage and built a foundation for future growth and development. I researched newspapers, historical documents, church records and made many personal contacts to provide what I believe to be the first compilation of women in our county who were a kind of “first” and the women’s clubs as they came into being with their first president listed. To err is human, so please forgive me for any inadvertent errors or omissions.
Since the beginning, even before the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit, women have played a vital role in the settlement of Oktibbeha County. Did you know that in 1839, Mississippi was the first state to grant women the right to hold property in their own name, with their husband’s permission?
• 1810 Rhoda Nail. She was the daughter of Henry Nail, a European trader and Revolutionary War soldier, married David Folsom who was the Indian Chief before the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit. He took her to a magistrate and they were married according to law. Until that time, the Indians were married according to tribal customs.
• 1822 Sara Varnum Kingsbury. Cyrus Kingsbury, a missionary of the Southern Presbyterian Church founded Elliot Mission for the Choctaws in 1818 and married Sarah B. Varnum that Christmas Eve. She died on September 15, 1822 just two years after he founded Mayhew Mission in 1820 leaving two small sons. Hers is the earliest tombstone found in the county.
• 1830s Elizabeth McKell, Margaret Flemming and Jane Wiseman. They were charter members of the Reform of Seceder Presbyterian Church in Starkville in the late 1830s.
• 1834 Aunt Caroline. The old School Presbyterian Church -Oldest church in town. It is recorded in the church history the following account. “On the back bench was Aunt Caroline. As a slave she had been a member of this church and though others of her African American friends had gone into their own church, Aunt Caroline remained a member with her white friends. Placidly and unchanging each Sunday morning she came arrayed in her black dress and starched white apron, to take her seat in the House of the Lord. When communion was given, Aunt Caroline abided humbly until after her people had all been given the wine, and then she drank to the “death of her Lord.” The years have rolled on since her seat was vacated, but I feel no hesitancy in saying that so humble a Christian as was Aunt Caroline she has her seat in the Heavenly Church with our Great Master.”
• 1839 Amelia Keen, Jane Oakley, Margaret West and Anne Wilson. These women made up the majority of the signers of Starkville’s First Baptist church charter in 1839.
• 1848 Miss Woodhouse. Although David Ames was actually the first schoolteacher in Starkville, a Miss Woodhouse, sister of Revolutionary War soldier William Woodhouse, began teaching during the earliest days of the town in the first official school building in Starkville. While Ames had taught in the courthouse, Miss Woodhouse’s school was a one-room school brick building 50 yards west of First United Methodist Church.
• 1881 First Woman’s Missionary Society of the Starkville Methodist Church. Mrs. T. C. Wier (Miss Loui Wier’s grandmother) was the first president. There were 37 names on the roll, mainly Lampkin, Puller, Gunn and Hogan.
• 1910 Daughters of The American Revolution. Evie Nash Hand, wife of Dr. William Flowers Hand, chemistry professor at MSU, was the first president. Charter members were Maria Ames, Carrie Bardwell, Stella Bardwell, Daisy Hogan, Donie Lucille Saunders, Elizabeth Yeager, Mrs. L. H. Ford, Rosa Eiland, Mrs. John Curtis Herbert, Mrs. H. L. Hutchinson, Alice Montgomery, Mrs. Henry Lee Noel, Mrs. Archie W. Reynolds, Mrs. Dero A. Saunders, Mrs. Hunter L. Scales and Mrs. D. E. Slaughter.
• 1912 Sturgis Woman’s Club. Lizzie Crow organized the club. It was first called the “Sturgis Canning Club.”
• 1914 Tomato Canning Club. This club affiliated with the Mississippi Home Demonstration Council in 1920 and in 1965 the name was changed to Mississippi Extension Homemaker Council. Alice Shinn was president in 1983.
• 1916 Sessums Woman’s Club. The club was organized during World War I through the leadership of several patriotic community-minded Sessums women like Fannie Randle and Mrs. Lon Peay. Mrs. J. C. Keen was the first president.
• 1917 Sorosis Club. Susie V. Powell, state director of Home Demonstration Clubs, organized it. The first name was “Household Engineering Corps” because it was organized during the First World War when emphasis was on food substitutes.
• 1924 Frances Witherspoon. She was the first African American Registered Nurse in the county. She was a graduate of Matty Hersee. She first worked for Dr. Buckingham, the first African American doctor in Starkville. Dr. Buckingham’s office was located where the funeral home is on Long Street. After a short stay, he returned to his hometown, West Point, to practice medicine and Witherspoon went to work for Dr. Feddie Eckford where she worked until retirement.
• 1940s Dr. Mary Walker Critz Fletcher. She is the first woman doctor in Oktibbeha County that I could find who practiced here. She was associated with the J. W. Eckford Memorial Clinic. She was a member of the local Pilot Club and acted as spokesperson for the group in spearheading the construction of the 1949 Oktibbeha County Health Center building. She stressed the need for a public health unit in the county and went to Jackson where she presented the need to the State Legislature.
• 1941 Beverly Hogan Merrill (Mrs. Jimmie Robinson). She was Oktibbeha County’s first woman pilot. Her instructor was Mason Sumter Camp whose instructor was Charles Lindbergh.
• 1946 Mrs. Bessie C. Henry. She was appointed by Governor Bailey to fill the unexpired Chancery Clerk term of her husband (S. A. Henry) at his death.
• 1946 Miss Grace Henry (now Mrs. A. L. Goodman), daughter of Mr. and Mrs. S. A. Henry. She served as Deputy Chancery Clerk
• 1947 Pilot Club. Twenty-one women signed the charter and elected Alberta Cook as president. One of the most significant early projects was spearheading the drive for construction of the Oktibbeha County Health Center which formally opened in 1949 with club members serving as hostesses. A more recent project was the mini-bus programs which helped transport the elderly and handicapped.
• 1947 Newcomers’ Club MSU. At the end of World War II enrollment doubled or tripled when servicemen returned. Mrs. Fred Mitchell, wife of MSU president, a newcomer herself, recognized the great need for women to have an opportunity to meet one another and form friendships in a new community. She held the first meeting in her home for the organization of this club
• 1949 Gloe Cunningham and Ina McGee. These women were the first Registered Nurses at the new (1949) Oktibbeha County Health Office.
• 1950 Hospital Auxiliary. It is an organization of women who devote numerous hours of unpaid time to services for the hospital. More than 200 women attended the meeting at the county courthouse to adopt the constitution. In 1951, twenty-seven members attended the first state convention in Jackson. They were recognized as the first and most progressive auxiliary in the state and honored with a reception at the Governor’s Mansion. Mrs. A. R. Gaston was elected president of the Mississippi State Hospital Auxiliaries.
• 1952 Mrs. Bill Harpole. She became sheriff of Oktibbeha County when her husband was unable to succeed himself. Bill Harpole became his wife’s Chief Deputy.
•1962 Margaret Wade. She was the first woman hired in the police department. She was the communications officer and later became Municipal Court Clerk.
• 1963 Oktibbeha Republican Women. Mrs. Roy Carpenter was the first president. In 1964 Mrs. Clyde Sheely was one of Mississippi’s 13 delegates to the Republican National Convention where she was one of 50 women serving on the platform committee.
• 1964 Legal Secretaries Association. It was chartered with 15 members. Ann Shawver was president in 1983
• 1965 Oktibbeha County Historical and Genealogical Society. Katie Prince Ward Esker, a Starkville native and genealogist of prominence promoted its formation. She had recently moved back home after many years in Washington, D.C. as a genealogist with the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. Caroline Weir Bennett was another woman at the organizational meeting.
• 1968 First Women to Serve on Jury. The newspaper considered the October 1968 event significant enough to warrant a picture of Judge John D. Green, Jr. talking to the county’s first women jurors who were identified as Mrs. John Barton, Mrs. Syble Scarbrough, Mrs. Louis Wise, Mrs. George Curry, Jr. and Mrs. Charlie Ann Kelly.
• 1970 Zola Koumba. It is an African American Club with the goal of helping others. Its main project is awarding college scholarships to high school seniors. 1983 Janet Self was president.
• 1975 Elizabeth Young Rogers. Lt Gov.William Winter presented her the highest honor bestowed on a Bicentennial Community by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. That same year she became the first woman to serve as Grand Marshall in the Starkville Christmas Parade. She helped found the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum along with Dr. Clyde Q. Sheely and Wilburn Sudduth.
• 1976 Miriam Cook. She was the first woman Circuit Clerk. Her husband, Tom, was sheriff from 1960-1964.
• 1977 Mary Lee Beal. She was the first woman elected to multiple terms (five) as alderwoman and to serve as Mayor Pro Tempo.
• 1982 Newcomers’ Club Starkville. Several Starkvillians recognized the need for some type club to welcome newcomers and allow them to get to know some of the citizens in the community. There was a Newcomers’ Club for the university but not for those who worked in Starkville. A meeting was held and Imogene Triplett became president of the club.
• 1990 Oktibbeha County Federation of Democratic Women. Jeanne Marszalek served the organization as its first present and held that office for two years. She was elected a delegate to two Democratic National Conventions, 1992 and 1996. The chair of the Oktibbeha County Democratic Executive Committee, Dr. Morris “Bill” Collins, (now deceased) suggested that a women’s Democratic organization be organized. He and Jeanne Marszalek attended a meeting in Jackson where they met the president of the Mississippi Federation of Democratic Women, Dr. Corrine Anderson of Jackson. Dr. Anderson agreed to come to Oktibbeha County and talk about the organization. In the spring of 1990, Jeanne invited a group of Democratic women to come to a meeting to hear Dr. Anderson speak and that was the beginning. Some of those in attendance were Monica Banks, Gloria Conley, Janette Self, Florence Richardson, and Lydia Quarles
• 1990 Rotary accepts first women. Lida Barrett, Dean of Arts and Sciences at MSU (University representation), and Jean Amos, owner of Coldwell Bankers Real Estate Agency (City representation) were the first women Rotarians. Arnold Moore, who had transferred from Youngstown, Ohio, felt that Starkville Rotary should have women members. This practice was adopted by the Council on Legislation of Rotary International in 1989 but had not reached Starkville.
• 1996 Monica Banks. She is the current Chancery Clerk and is the first African American woman elected to this position.
Note: Nell Richards served as Tax Assessor for many years.
Lena Scurria served as City Clerk for many years.
Grace Goodman remembers...
Both of my parents served as Chancery Clerk. My father was elected in the early 1940s. He died in 1946 and my mother, Bessie C. Henry was appointed by Governor Bailey to fill the office until an election could be held. She was elected and served several terms in the office.
Mary Lee Beal remembers...
I was elected in 1977 and served for 20 years (five terms). This was the 1st election held by wards and I represented Ward 1. Punchy Davis was Mayor. I don’t know how you can say this but I entered a “boy’s club!” I inquired about going to a National League of Cities meeting in Washington D.C. and was told, “that’s a boy’s trip.” Basically I was treated with respect but was considered an upstart.