As the renovation of Samford University’s Ralph W. Beeson University Center is completed, students, faculty, and staff may notice that Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry has left the building. A marble statue of Samford’s third president stood inside the building’s south entrance from November 2009 until renovations began in the summer of 2018. It was on loan from the State of Alabama. I understand it is now in the collection of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Just as with the well-loved bust of Samford’s sixteenth president, Major Harwell Davis, and its greatest benefactor, Mr. Ralph W. Beeson, the Samford community showed its respect for President Curry with occassional adornments.
Standing tall by himself in a place with no other artistic work, Curry was always something of a fish out of water in the University Center. His statue was carved by Dante Sodini and installed in the the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall five years after his death, in 1908. Since Samford’s current campus opened forty-nine years later, this made the statue one of the oldest objects on campus.
Each state can place two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection. Curry was the first person chosen by Alabama. In 1925, he was joined by Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate general who later represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives and served as a general in the U.S. Army. In 2000, Congress began allowing states to replace older statues with newer ones. Governor Bob Riley led the effort to have Alabama replace Curry with Helen Keller in 2009.
Curry was born in Georgia in 1825 and raised in Talladega County, Alabama, where his father was a planter. Curry’s role in Samford’s history was brief, but essential. He oversaw the reopening of the school and the resumption of classes after the Civil War. He was appointed president of Howard College (as Samford was then known) in 1865 and served until 1868. At that point he left Alabama, never to return as a resident, and became a professor at another Baptist school, Richmond College (now University of Richmond) in his wife’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
A graduate of Franklin College (now the University of Georgia) and Harvard Law School, Curry began his political career by representing Talladega County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He later represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives (1857-1861) and the Confederate Congress (1861-1864). A slave owner, he was a staunch supporter of states’ rights and secession. After the war he devoted his attention to education and religion. He also served in Madrid from 1885 to 1888 as the U.S. minister to Spain.
In January 1866, shortly after becoming president of Howard, he was ordained to the Baptist ministry. While some presidents of Samford (or Howard) have been laymen and others clergymen, Curry was the only one to be both while in office.
After teaching for over a decade in Richmond, in 1881, he became general agent for the Peabody Education Fund and in 1890 also became head of the Slater Fund. Established by wealthy northerners, these funds supported public and vocational education for both black and white Southerners. He vigorously opposed efforts to fund segregated public schools based on the actual tax contributions of each race. Such efforts would have severely restricted the funds available for African American schools. One wonders what he would think of Alabama’s current system of funding public education which is highly dependent on local taxes in a state where many localities are primarily one race or the other.
The African American educator Booker T. Washington praised Curry in 1901, saying, “Dr. Curry is a native of the South, an ex-Confederate soldier, yet I do not believe there is any man in the country who is more deeply interested in the welfare of the Negro than Dr. Curry, or one who is more free from race prejudice.” By the time of his death, Curry was the nation’s best-known advocate of Southern education. The school of education at the University of Virginia was established through a gift from the Peabody Fund and named in his Curry’s honor.
Not withstanding the praise Booker T. Washington gave him, it should be no surprise that Curry was a supporter of segregation and that he believed whites had a superior role to play in America. If he lacked such views it is doubtful that the Alabama Legislature of 1906 would have selected him for one of the state’s two statues in the Capitol. He explained in 1899 that “the white people are to be the leaders, to take the initiative, to have the directive control in all matters pertaining to civilization and the highest interests of our beloved land.”
As another Samford professor once pointed out to me, Curry also believed that education was a necessary prerequisite to voting rights. Writing in a short 1901 book entitled The South in Olden Times, he stated, “The more intelligent and conservative regard an educational qualification as an indispensable condition precedent to voting, and coincide with the most worthy and remarkable leader of his race, Mr. Booker T. Washington, in wishing the same restriction made applicable to both races and enforced with equal justice and impartiality.” Curry and Washington championed education so that members of both races would be worthy of the right to vote, but in practice such requirements were used to keep African Americans from voting.
When Curry’s statue returned to Alabama, it was natural that Samford be considered a location for it. Except for the state government, he was more connected to Samford than any other current Alabama institution. I heard at that time that initial the idea was to place the statue in the University Library where portraits of Samford presidents are displayed. But concerns about the concentrated weight of the 2,200 pound statue led to its placement in the University Center.
Curry’s statue would have been more at home in the library, contextualized among the many figures in Samford’s history. There members of the Samford community could reflect on his career as a slave owner, legislator, proponent of secession, lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, Samford president, supporter of segregation, and champion of public education.
Of course this is still possible. Though the statue is gone his portrait remains. It is located directly behind the center section of the library circulation desk. Of course, it is hard to put a Santa hat on a portrait.
[updated with minor corrections: July 11]