On Jan. 21, 2019, Centre College turns 200. Why should 21st-century Americans care about the history of this College? Why does it matter that Centre has, during its almost 200 years, overcome significant obstacles to survive and thrive?
When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke at Centre’s 2004 commencement, she said, “Centre College graduates have a proud tradition of public service and dedication to the good of the nation.” As Centre prepares to celebrate its bicentennial, Justice O’Connor’s words certainly ring true. Two themes that have resonated throughout the College’s 200-year history are service and the national impact made by the College and its alumni.
The connections between service and the College began with the school’s first trustees. The founders of Centre College were a notable group of early Kentuckians that included Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor, and Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who performed the world’s first successful abdominal operation in Danville in 1809.
While Shelby, McDowell, and the other founders had remarkable careers, one who might best exemplify service is trustee James G. Birney. In 1834, after coming to terms with the full moral and spiritual failure of owning other human beings, Birney freed his slaves and called for the immediate national abolition of slavery. This was an extremely radical view to have in antebellum Kentucky. After Birney started an anti-slavery newspaper in Danville, mobs threatened him on several occasions. Local residents finally bought out his printer in order to prevent his newspaper from being published. Birney then moved to Cincinnati and operated his newspaper there. He continued to fight for the abolition of slavery and twice ran for president on the anti-slavery Liberty Party ticket.
The Civil War provided another opportunity for faculty, graduates, and students to serve. Latin professor James Matthews, for example, took a leave of absence and became a Union chaplain. Multiple graduates joined the Union and Confederate armies, and several of them became prominent generals. Others became casualties. Centre graduate Samuel Todd-1848, Mary Todd Lincoln’s brother, was killed at the Battle of Shiloh while fighting for the Confederacy. Another, Union chaplain John W. Jacobs-1854, died from typhoid fever while on duty at Lebanon, Ky. By the end of the war, dozens of alumni had been killed and wounded.
In October 1862, when Kentucky’s largest battle was fought just 10 miles from campus at Perryville, Centre graduates served on both sides. During the opening stages of the battle, Union General James S. Jackson-1843 was shot twice in the chest and killed. Two of Jackson’s military aides were also Centre graduates. Moreover, two other alumni were part of a Confederate regiment that attacked Jackson’s position. One of those rebel graduates was severely wounded; he recovered from his injury in the house in which he had lived while a Centre student. A number of other alumni served as doctors and surgeons at Perryville, including Union doctor Thomas Sanders-1848 (the author’s great- great-grandfather) and Confederate surgeon John D. Jackson-1854.
After the battle—in which more than 7,500 men were killed and wounded—buildings on Centre’s campus filled with sick Union soldiers. Because of its size, Old Centre became a major hospital. One student who took food to the ill troops later remarked, “I saw the poor, sickly wounded soldiers all over the building.”
The southern wing of Old Centre became a post-mortem or embalming room for soldiers who died on campus. One student said that Old Centre was full of “some very sick soldiers; plenty of them that died.”
The cost of war was clearly visible on campus after Perryville, and the chaos of the aftermath pushed many to want to help. Students took food, blankets, and supplies to the sick soldiers. Centre’s president, Lewis Warner Green-1824, died from an illness he caught while helping some of the ill troops. Called “a ripe scholar, an inspiring teacher, a man of superb bearing and of matchless eloquence,” Green’s death struck the College particularly hard.
From the Civil War through several financial panics, Centre could have closed during the 19th century. Instead, the College overcame adversity and thrived. This success was recognized in 1903, when Princeton’s president, Woodrow Wilson, said, “There is a little college down in Kentucky which, in her 60 years, has graduated more men who have acquired prominence and fame than has Princeton in her 150 years.” As this quotation attests, Centre at the beginning of the 20th century was recognized for having an incredible number of successful alumni, including members of Congress, business leaders, and prominent educators and ministers.
The 20th century was a time of change and transition. In 1926, the Kentucky College for Women merged with Centre. The women from this period blazed a path for such later graduates as Shelba Proffitt ’57, who became the first woman to join the senior executive service of the Army’s Strategic Defense command; Peggy McDowell Curlin ’62, president of the Centre for Development and Population Activities, an NGO that supports women in more than 40 countries; George Ella Hoskins Lyon ’71, Kentucky’s former poet laureate; and Crit Blackburn Luallen ’74, who became Kentucky’s state auditor and lieutenant governor. These women, and thousands of others, turned their Centre experiences into amazing careers focused on service.
After the Second World War, Centre’s forward momentum continued under the leadership of President Thomas A. Spragens and Dean Max Cavnes, who led the school from the 1950s until the 1980s. When President Spragens arrived on campus in 1957, Centre was racially segregated. Spragens, however, pushed for the College to integrate, which it did in 1962 with the arrival of Timothy Kusi ’65, a transfer student from Ghana. In 1964, Joyce Cross ’68, James Davis ’68, and Sharon Gill ’68 were the first three African American students to enroll as freshmen; they all graduated four years later.
A group of historians promoting the relevance of history recently wrote, “No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory . . . No place is a community until it has [an] awareness of its history. Our connections and commitment to one another are strengthened when we share stories and experiences.”
This is also why celebrating Centre’s bicentennial is so important. Our traditions, accomplishments, times of sacrifice, and stories of service are the cords that bind us together. Thinking about Centre’s 200 years helps students and alumni find their own place within the larger stories of the College. Despite our differences, our history brings us together to celebrate something good and meaningful.
Centre alumni include two U.S. vice presidents, members of the U.S. Supreme Court, and dozens of governors and members of Congress. The list also includes thousands of others who, equally important, have quietly served their communities doing great work. This tradition of service winds through Centre’s 200-year history. From the first trustees—our founders, such as James Birney—to today’s students, the concept of service above self is what has made the College—and the school’s graduates—among the best in the nation.
Stuart W. Sanders ’95 is the author of three books, including Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle. He is a member of the Centre Bicentennial Committee and works in the public history field in Kentucky. This article is an excerpted version of his 2018 Founders Day lecture.
by Stuart W. Sanders ’95