The Branham Affair

 

The Branham controversy began in early May 1859 when the Barnards were in Vicksburg attending the Southern Commercial Convention. Barnard had gone to the convention at the request of James Howry to make peace with board member Isaac N. Davis. When the Barnards returned on May 17, Professor Boynton, who lived in the other wing of their faculty house, told Barnard that two students, J.P. Furniss and Samuel B. Humphreys, had entered his residence on the night of May 12 "with shameful designs" on one of his "defenceless female servants." Jane, at twenty-nine the younger of the two servants, was apparently raped and in defending herself was badly beaten. Professor Boynton, after hearing a scuffle and loud noise, went outside to the fence separating the yards. He saw the two boys leave the residence and learned their identity from other students students several days later. Mrs. Barnard also told the chancellor that Jane had identified Humphreys as the assailant. Furniss was a bystander and not involved in the altercation.

The faculty summoned Humphreys to a called meeting on May 23. He pleaded not guilty to entering the chancellor's residence and assaulting Jane. After taking testimony from several students, the faculty found Humphreys not guilty. Barnard, Boynton, and Moore voted guilty. Richardson, Carter, Phipps, Henry Whitemore (professor of Greek) , and Stearns voted not guilty. On a second vote, a majority of the faculty declared Humphrey "morally convicted" but did "not consider the evidence . . . sufficient, legally, to convict him." under mississippi law, a slave could not testify against a white person in court. A majority of the faculty believed Jane's identification of Humphreys was not admissible in the proceedings against him. Therefore, the faculty took no action against Humphreys.

After the faculty declined to expel Humphreys, Barnard wrote his parents and asked them to withdraw him from the university, which they did. When Humphreys reapplied for the fall session, Chancellor Barnard rejected his application. His refusal to allow Humphreys's readmission spawned a small student rebellion and provided Branham a pretext with which to challenge Barnard's soundness on the slavery and states' rights. In protest of Barnard's action several students withdrew from the university and transferred to Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, but most of them returned the next year.

Branham, Carter, and Richardson soon began a "whispering campaign" against Barnard accusing him of dismissing a student on the basis of "negro testimony." Professor Carter leaked the proceedings of the May 23 faculty meeting and insinuated that the faculty vote was sectional, the Northern men voting to convict and the Southern men voting not guilty. Stevenson printed every rumor and charge in the Mercury and denounced Barnard and the university's other Northern-born professors. The rumors and accusations became so serious and so persistent that Barnard wrote to Governor John J. Pettus, ex officio chairman of the board of trustees, asking for "the fullest and most searching investigation" of the charges against him, especially the accusation that he was unsound on slavery. Governor Pettus called a special meeting of the board of trustees at Oxford for March 1, 1860. James Ventress hastily wrote to William Sharkey, urging him to attend the Oxford meeting to help him defend the chancellor.

For two days, March 1 and 2, the board heard the testimony of seventeen witness called by Branham and Barnard. The most influential of seventeen witnesses was Barnard himself. He testified that he had never discussed the assault with his slave, Jane, and that he had relied on evidence furnished by other sources to determine the guilt of Humphreys . Furthermore, he argued, because the governance of the university was parental, not municipal, the testimony of a slave, though he did not use it, was admissible and valid in the proceeding against a student. As to the question of slavery, Barnard declared, "I am as sound on the slavery question as any member of the board." It was a convincing argument but not altogether a true statement. Barnard owned slaves, but he had misgivings about the institution and would soon renounce it.

Shortly after dark on the second day of tesimony, the board of trustees retired to its meeting room in the Lyceum. After considering the two days of testimony, the board unanimously absolved Chancellor Barnard of all the charges against him and ordered the proceedings, including its resolution clearing Barnard of all charges, printed and distributed throughout the state.

 

 

 

Passage taken with permission from author, David G. Sansing. The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History,University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, 1999. 96-98.

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