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Ole Miss Musings: "The History of the 'Y' Building"

Built in 1853, the ‘Old Chapel’ (as it is also known) may have more history than any building on campus. After reading the latest interview in a series with Oxford/Ole Miss historian, Starke Miller, I think most would agree.
HottyToddy.com: Wasn’t the Old Chapel originally planned to serve a different purpose?
Starke Miller: That’s correct. Initially, it was going to be the third dorm on campus. However, at some point during the construction, the need for a chapel trumped the dormitory concept.

HottyToddy.com: Apparently, Ole Miss started out as a fairly religious school.
Starke Miller: Six mornings a week (promptly at 6 am) chapel was a mandatory assignment. There were special demerits awarded for those who took this responsibility lightly including appearing in sleeping gowns.
HottyToddy.com: At some juncture, the approximate 100- 125 male students protested.
Starke Miller: There was a student rebellion in the late 1850’s, that was quickly ended. At some time thereafter, the building took on another dimension; being utilized for a debate society. The Phi Sigma and Hermean Debate Societies were set up by the professors.
HottyToddy.com: Explain the importance of a debate society in the 1800’s.
Starke Miller: The debates would commence at 9 a.m. on Saturday and proceed to noon or 1 p.m. There were speeches, debates and round table discussions. About half the male students (women did not arrive until 1883), participated and membership was by invitation only. Males were expected to think fast on their feet, present ideas well and be public orators. Because of this emphasis, a library evolved inside each Society which rivaled the University Library in The Lyceum.
HottyToddy.com: What occurred inside the building in the spring of 1861?
Starke Miller: The University Greys met one day for about an hour or so to finalize their uniforms for the Confederacy. They ultimately selected gray uniforms with black accents. The hat was three cornered with a waving plume.
HottyToddy.com: Graduations were a multi-day affair before radio and television.
Starke Miller: The Old Chapel was also the setting for the four-day graduations. These occurred in June with all classes participating except freshmen. Sophomores would give speeches the entire first day followed by juniors on day two. On the third day, the two debate societies would provide speakers and they would award their own diplomas. On the fourth and final day, the seniors would deliver their commencement addresses. And then that night, there was a huge party in Stewards Hall, directly behind The Lyceum. Bands would arrive from Memphis and Jackson. The invited ladies would be present for most of the four-day ordeal, staying in one of the two Oxford hotels.
HottyToddy.com: After all of this pomp and ceremony transpired, the building took on a much more serious demeanor.
Starke Miller: From 1862-65 the Old Chapel served as the University’s first hospital building, followed by all the other buildings. During that time, some 500 patients were treated in the Chapel. A good estimate is that about 20 percent of those died primarily from wounds incurred in battle.
HottyToddy.com: When Grant arrived here in 1862, did the building continue serving as a hospital?
Starke Miller: The Yankees had three primary purposes for the facility.

  1. To continue its use as a hospital.
  2. A supply building. and
  3. A Confederate prison/jail.

HottyToddy.com: Nathan Bedford Forrest was also there, correct?
Starke Miller: Forrest, in all likelihood, entered the building on multiple occasions during his trips in and out of Oxford in 1864. It basically returned to its former use exclusively as a hospital upon Grant’s departure.
HottyToddy.com: In 1866, I recall your mentioning a very special commencement address that was presented in the Old Chapel as the school had reopened following the Great War.

Francis Pope

Starke Miller: Francis A. (Frank) Pope delivered one of the greatest, and most moving speeches ever made on the Ole Miss campus. A native of Holmes County and a member of the University Greys, and then in 1862 as a member of the 29th MS regiment, Pope was captured at Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga. He was taken to a Union prison camp for 18 months. That eventful day in June 1866, he talked about the University Greys; 30 percent of his classmates were killed and his prison time with other Ole Miss students. Tears were shed nonstop as he spoke about the tragedies of the war.

HottyToddy.com: Today the building serves as The Croft Institute for International Studies, but also had an interim life.
Starke Miller: Sometime in the 1930’s the building was converted or retrofit into a YMCA. The second and third floors now consist of offices in its present role.
HottyToddy.com: Tell our readers about James Gordon.
Starke Miller: Gordon, an 1855 graduate of Ole Miss, was from one of the wealthiest families in the state. He was considered a great romantic as upon acceptance of his diploma, he walked into the audience, bowed and placed the diploma in his girlfriend’s lap. This was talked about for years following. Fast forward to January 9, 1861. Gordon is in New Orleans about to embark on an African safari when he learns of Mississippi’s secession. He immediately cancels the excursion and underwrites the cost of an entire Calvary unit, receiving the rank of Captain in the process. He survived the war, but was ruined financially. Upon returning to his hometown following the war, he was observed driving an old mule pulling a wagon, when a bully yelled at him “there goes James Gordon, once a wealthy man, but look at the diminished state of the gentleman now.”  Gordon then proceeded to go in the direction of the bully responding…”Sir, you would never be considered a gentleman under any circumstances.”
HottyToddy.com: What a history for a building that now finds itself 164 years old!
Starke Miller: The building has been through a good many experiences, some of which were never planned or even ever imagined. 

Steve VassalloSteve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. Currently, Steve is a highly successful leader in the real estate business who lives in Oxford with his wife Rosie. You can contact Steve at sovassallo@gmail.com or call him at 985-852-7745.

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