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Presidents


President of Emory During Civil War

James R. Thomas
1812-1897

President 1855-67
James R. Thomas

About the time Stephen Olin was appealing to the Georgia Conference Methodists for funds to support Randolph-Macon College, that very college was training the man who would preside unhappily over Emory during the Civil War, James R. Thomas. A native Georgian, Thomas taught on the faculty of Wesleyan Female College prior to his election to Emory's presidency in December 1855.

Thomas guided Emory through what was probably its most difficult period, when the college's prospects for success were most in doubt. He was fond of physical labor, and it is said that his favorite hobby was panning for gold in the streams around Oxford, where he once found a dollar and a half worth of the metal. One hopes he added it to the operating budget, for by the end of his first term—in a year begun under Alexander Means's leadership—the college was $8,225 in debt. The following year added nearly another $3,000 to the deficit.

Still, enrollment was growing, and in the fall of 1860 some two hundred forty-four students brought the promise of greater revenues. That November, however, brought sectional rivalry to a head in the United States presidential election, and by the following spring the fever of war had swept Georgia out of the Union and Oxford students off the campus. When the Board of Trustees convened on July 17, 1861—just four days before the First Battle of Bull Run—they failed to attain a quorum. When next the board met, on November 29th, the trustees found the college without enough of either students or funds to continue the year. Sadly noting these facts, the board wrote to the faculty:

The Board of Trustees of Emory College, profoundly pressed with a sense of the capacity, fidelity and devotion displayed by President Thomas and his associates in their connection with our cherished institution, and especially gratified and encouraged by the spirit which they manifest towards the college and toward us its guardians in our present embarrassed circumstances, beg leave to express to the President and to the Professors without exception our high appreciation of the ability and usefulness by which their laborious and ill paid services have been constantly characterized, our sincere regret that we are compelled to withdraw for the present the meagre[sic] salaries hitherto awarded to them, and our anxious desire that they will each if possible so arrange for the future as that when peace shall take place of the present public agitation, the college and the Church of the State [sic] may not fail of securing a continuation of their valuable services in the positions they now respectively occupy.

For the faculty, as for the rest of the South, the next four years became a matter of subsistence in the face of gravest danger and widespread devastation.

When the trustees next met, in November 1865, they had not much more of a college left than had Few and his compatriots twenty-nine years earlier. The buildings had stored cotton, housed wounded and dying soldiers, or been ransacked by burglars and thieves. Whatever endowment there had been before the war—probably not much more than $35,000—was wiped out by having been invested in Confederate bonds. In the face of extremely tenuous circumstances, it must have taken great courage for President Thomas to write to the board, on July 17, 1865:

Under the present impoverished conditions of your finances, to demand our former salary secured to us by your official obligation might be deemed not only rigorous but very indelicate. To announce that we cannot serve you would have the semblance of unfaithfulness to a great trust and a most precious interest of the church. Therefore while it is true that even our former salaries under a crippled currency and the increased cost of living would not support our families—yet we make no demand of you. We simply ask you to do the best you can and we will try to be content, hoping that God in his Providence will cause a better day to dawn upon us soon.

For the faculty, as for the rest of the South, the next four years became a matter of subsistence in the face of gravest danger and widespread devastation.

What probably saved the college was the Georgia Legislature's passage of what amounted to a Confederate GI Bill. The state offered to provide funds for tuition and expenses of poor students who had been injured in the Confederate armies, and in 1866-67 enrollment jumped to a hundred and twenty, of whom ninety-three were veterans. Of the college's income of $3,300 that year, $1,620 was state aid, which it was up to President Thomas to apportion to the students. His salary that year was $631. The janitor made $25. But the college ended the year with a surplus of $31.32, and the small, amazingly loyal band of teachers at Oxford—joined now by a professor of Latin—had reason to hope.

Thomas himself hung on another year before departing. Before the war, he had balanced the college's budget for the first time in Emory's history and had put the school on a stable footing. After the war, he again helped the school to find financial stability. He also played an important role in the state's reconstruction by persuading the Emory trustees to complement the classical curriculum by offering the degree of bachelor of science, without the language requirements. His intention was to train students in the useful, as well as the liberal, arts. But the tedious labor of doling out the state funds to veterans, and his general despondency over the plight of the South during Reconstruction, prompted him to leave. In 1867 he accepted the presidency of Pacific Methodist College, at Vacaville, California.


Source: A Legacy of Heart and MInd: Emory Since 1836. Gary S. Hauk, PhD

 

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