Thursday, August 28, 2008

James Thomas Murfee (1833-1912) – Part Two

COL James T. Murfee at MMI in 1892. (MMI Archives)

In 1871, COL James T. Murfee was appointed president of Howard College in Marion, a position which he held until Howard moved to Birmingham. From 1887 until his death in 1912, COL Murfee helped to transform Marion Military Institute into one of the premier educational institutions in the South. He also involved himself with the fortunes of Howard College, Judson College, Marion Female Seminary, and the Siloam Baptist Church in Marion. COL Murfee was instrumental in bringing Booker T. Washington to Alabama and Tuskegee Institute, a fact publicly acknowledged by Washington when he spoke to a large gathering in Marion in 1913.

The memorial for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, in Alabama. (MMI Archives)

At one time or another, James Thomas Murfee was offered – but, declined – the presidencies of the University of Alabama, and what became Auburn University and the University of Montevallo.

President Benjamin Harrison appointed COL Murfee to the Board of Visitors at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In 1906, Murfee received one of the first annuities established by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to American education.

COL Murfee was elected in 1997 to the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame at Samford University in Birmingham. (Image by Bill Mathews)

James Thomas Murfee died in Miami, FL, on April 23, 1912, and is buried with his wife, Laura Owen (died 1920), in the Marion cemetery. (MMI Archives)

COL Murfee was succeeded as president of MMI by his son, Hopson Owen Murfee (1905-1918). Two other Murfees, Walter Lee Murfee (1918-1944) and James Thomas Murfee, II (1944-1953), would serve as the third and fourth presidents of MMI.

The MMI faculty from The Assembly (yearbook) for 1901. (MMI Archives)

Finally, a side bar: As a distinguished graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, Class of 1853, James Murfee was consulted in 1856 by VMI authorities concerning the possible removal of his former professor, Thomas Jonathan (“Stonewall”) Jackson, from teaching in the VMI classroom! Apparently, Jackson’s teaching skills and subject knowledge were lacking. While Murfee supported his former teacher as a man of honor, honesty, integrity, and strong religious conviction (and a heroic Mexican War veteran), he had to confess that he had learned little in Jackson’s class. (VMI Archives)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

James Thomas Murfee (1833-1912) – Part One

Two images of the painting of COL James T. Murfee in the Samford University Library in Birmingham, AL. (Images by Samford University and Bill Mathews)

James Thomas Murfee (1833-1912) of Southampton County, Virginia, became the founder and first president of Marion Military Institute in 1887. Then president of Howard College (1871-1887) in Marion, COL Murfee and some trustees elected to stay in Marion and create Marion Military Institute following the decision to move Howard College to the new boom-town of Birmingham.

Col Murfee, who had begun the military program at Howard in 1871, graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, in 1853 in civil engineering. As a cadet, he served as the First Captain (the highest ranking cadet) and graduated first in his class without a single demerit.

This is not Cadet First Captain J. T. Murfee, VMI Class of 1853, but rather the first captain in the Class of 1856. However, the image illustrates the dress uniform that Murfee would have worn. Note the Corps of Engineers emblem on the shako, similar to that worn at West Point during the period. (VMI Archives)

J. T. Murfee’s top standing in the VMI Class of 1853. (VMI Archives)

Entering the teaching profession, Murfee taught in Pennsylvania and Virginia before joining the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa as a mathematics professor. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the University was militarized and the all-male student body became the Alabama Corps of Cadets (ACC). Murfee was originally second in command, but rose to become commandant of the ACC when his predecessor joined the Confederate forces. J. T. Murfee, himself, rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the 41st Alabama Infantry.

The Round House at the University of Alabama (which still stands next to the Gorgas Library) was the only structure specifically built for military purposes, c. 1860-1861. It served as the cadet guard house and, ironically, was one of only four buildings to survive the destruction of the University in 1865. Its architecture is similar to that of the Virginia Military Institute. (Hoole Special Collections Library, University of Alabama)

As commandant, Murfee commanded the Alabama Corps of Cadets when Croxton’s raiders burned the University of Alabama on April 4, 1865. Alarmed that Union cavalry were in Tuscaloosa, the cadets were assembled and rushed through Tuscaloosa to defend the bridge at River Hill over the Black Warrior River. In a brief encounter with Union skirmishers near the bridge, two cadets and a tactical officer, State Captain John H. Murfee - COL Murfee’s brother - were wounded (Murfee, in the foot; three of the raiders were killed). Learning that their cannon had already been captured and that the cadets were badly outnumbered by a heavily armed opponent with artillery, the decision was made to retreat. While the enemy destroyed the University, the Alabama Corps of Cadets retreated along the Huntsville Road to Hurricane Creek where they barricaded the bridge and dug in along the opposite bank prepared to make a stand should the Union raiders follow them. The attack never came, however. COL Murfee then marched the Alabama Corps of Cadets down to Marion where they were disbanded, the war being essentially over.

After the Civil War, James T. Murfee worked as an architect in Tuscaloosa. As such, he was hired to help rebuild the University of Alabama. The first major structure built, what became Woods Hall, was designed by Murfee and was patterned after the barracks at his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute. The building was to form part of a proposed quadrangle (modeled after VMI) which was never built. The Alabama Corps of Cadets continued as the mainstay of the student body during Reconstruction and beyond.

Woods Hall, built in 1868, was the principal University building until 1886, when two other buildings were constructed. (Hoole Special Collections Library, University of Alabama)

Note: Part Two will begin with James T. Murfee’s appointment as president of Howard College in Marion in 1871.

Friday, August 15, 2008

H. O. Murfee and Albert Einstein

Elsa and Albert Einstein in Europe.

A young Hopson Owen Murfee, c. 1905.

Beginning in 1931 and continuing through 1939, Hopson Owen Murfee, in retirement from his home in Prattville, Alabama, pursued a running correspondence with Dr. Albert Einstein, world-renowned physicist and formulator of the theory of relativity. COL Murfee, a scientist himself, was the second president of Marion Military Institute (1905-1918) and the son of our founder and first president, COL James T. Murfee (1887-1905). H. O. Murfee’s letters were sent first to the University of Berlin in Germany, then to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and finally to Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein spent the bulk of his years in America.

Initially, H. O. Murfee wanted Dr. Einstein to write an article for his proposed book, Thought and Style: Science and Culture. When Einstein politely declined the offer, Murfee asked if he could reprint Einstein’s Introduction to Newton’s Optics in his work. This request Einstein granted, as he granted at least one more reprint later.

Here is Dr. Einstein’s letter (in German) to H. O. Murfee on August 8, 1931, granting Murfee permission to reprint his Introduction to Newton’s Optics.

And here is Murfee’s letter of thanks, dated August 24, 1931.

H. O. Murfee’s main focus, however, was toward convincing Dr. Einstein to visit Alabama and Marion Institute and to tour other exceptional educational institutions in the state including the University of Alabama, Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), and Tuskegee Institute. Retired and something of an invalid, H.O. Murfee wanted Dr. and Mrs. (Elsa) Einstein to visit he and his wife, Queenie (Mary McQueen Smith), in their “country home” on a 10,000-acre plantation near Prattville, Alabama.

Here is Elsa Einstein’s response (in English) to Murfee’s continued invitations to visit Alabama, dated February 7, 1933.

Dr. Einstein’s response throughout the years of Murfee’s correspondence (1931-1939) was one of polite refusal to come to Alabama. H. O. Murfee mounted an all-out campaign to persuade Einstein to come to the state in 1935; letters – prompted by Murfee - were sent to Dr. Einstein from the governor of Alabama, the presidents of Alabama, Auburn, and Tuskegee, the Jewish Rabbi in Montgomery, and from various other Alabama notables, all to no avail. (Murfee mounted similar campaigns to get other notables to visit Alabama; he succeeded at one point in getting Eleanor Roosevelt to have lunch in his Prattville home while traveling to give a speech in Montgomery in 1939).

Here is the invitation of Governor Bibb Graves of Alabama for the Einsteins to visit Alabama and the Murfees, dated December 23, 1935.

It appears that Dr. Albert Einstein never visited Alabama. To add to the “myth and fable” category of Marion Military Institute lore, a tale of a special “Einstein Science Curriculum” at MMI appears to have been just that, a tale. I have found nothing to date regarding same.

Here is a recent humorous billboard about Dr. Albert Einstein from the folks at The Foundation for a Better Life.

By the way, H. O. Murfee worked on compiling Thought and Style: Science and Culture for many years but it was never completed for publication.