University of Mississippi

Barnard Observatory

Frederick Barnard and the History of Barnard Observatory

Born in Massachusetts in 1809, Frederick A. Barnard would become the third chancellor of the University of Mississippi, instituting many reforms that significantly altered and improved the University. While chancellor, he placed great significance on the experimental sciences and had both a chemistry lab and an observatory added to the campus.

Barnard grew up as an intellectually curious and highly motivated young man. After graduating second in his class from Yale in 1828, Barnard secured a position teaching at the Hartford Grammar School. His severe hearing impairment, however, forced him to resign and move to the New York State Institute, a school for the speech and hearing impaired.

After meeting the president of the University of Alabama in 1837, Barnard was offered a position as the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy, which he accepted. Barnard later acknowledged his 16 years at the University of Alabama as some of the happiest of his life. There he met his wife, Margaret McMurray, whom he married in 1847; they would have a long and loving marriage.

In 1854, a former student informed Barnard that the chair of the chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy departments was available at the University of Mississippi, which was then only a decade old. Barnard was drawn to the position after having his educational reform proposal rejected at the University of Alabama. Upon visiting Oxford and the University of Mississippi, he met with the board of trustees and agreed to take the position.

During his time at the University of Mississippi, he devoted himself entirely to making it one of the preeminent universities in the country. He was able to do this from a higher position than a professor when, in 1856, President Longfellow submitted his resignation to the board of trustees. Barnard’s name was among the candidates for the seat, and though the choice was hotly contested, Barnard was selected as president. That he was also the priest at Oxford’s Episcopal church, St. Peter’s, helped in garnering the position, as many of the trustees of the university were Episcopalian and threw their support behind Barnard.

As president, he continued to teach in the classroom and won the support and loyalty of the students. The student magazine called him “a genius of the most versatile talent.” Students defended him passionately against disunionists who accused him of poisoning the university with his Northern ways.

Frustrated that the position of president was given much responsibility yet no real power, in 1857 Barnard entreated the board of trustees to implement a new university code that would give him the capability to improve the college. After the board refused his petition, he threatened to leave, feeling that he had no influence. He even began investigating possible jobs at Yale and Sewanee. The board reevaluated his code at their next meeting and, under the threat of his resignation and the backing of trustee James Ventress, they allowed most of his suggestions. In 1858 Barnard sent the board of trustees his “Letter to the Honorable Board of Trustees of the University of Mississippi,” which he also had widely printed and distributed around the state of Mississippi. It spoke of his ideal university, which would include branches of science, medicine, agriculture, law, classics, political science, and more. He emphasized that original investigation, and not just rote memorization, was the key to advancing education and making the University a hallmark of academia. As the letter was read throughout the state, it elicited many reactions. The clergy called the university a “citadel of atheism,” since it was nondenominational, like most other Southern colleges. The press, who were accused in his letter of spreading falsities around the state about the need for educational advancement, accused the University of Mississippi of being “a hotbed of abolitionism.”

Barnard came closer to having his ideal university, when, in 1856, the state legislature allocated $100,000 to the university, to be paid over a five-year period. Barnard used this money to acquire a wide array of scientific instruments and, more importantly, to build the observatory that would be named after him and be one of his most famous legacies at the university. Barnard Observatory was completed in 1859.

At that time, there were increasing rumors circulating around campus that Barnard was “unsound on the slavery question” and there was an undercurrent of unease that a Northern man was the president of the state university. Though there was growing trepidation about him, of his time at the university Barnard said, “I have done some work here which will not die with me.” After the Civil War began in 1861, Barnard handed in his resignation and planned to move back north. The war made safe travel almost impossible, and he and his wife ended up being stuck in Norfolk, Virginia, until it was captured by Federal troops. In 1864, Barnard went on to become president of Columbia University. After his death in 1932, Barnard College of Columbia University for women was established in his honor.

Frederick Barnard declared, “The Mississippi observatory will be my monument,” and it is thought to be the best architectural example of the university’s original buildings, as well as a testament to Barnard’s immense contributions to education and scientific investigation. An Oral History of Barnard Observatory, a recording found in the University of Mississippi’s special collections, tells that because they have strikingly similar designs, it is believed that Barnard had his observatory modeled after the Pulkovo Observatory in Russia.

Barnard had plans to have the world’s largest telescope at the observatory, but just as the manufacturers, Alvon Clark and Sons, finished the instrument, the Civil War broke out and it was never delivered. Part of the observatory was furnished as the official Chancellor’s residence in 1860, with Chancellor Barnard and Margaret Barnard as its first inhabitants. During the Civil War, while the university was closed, the observatory was used as a hospital. Both Confederate and Union soldiers were given medical care in the building.

Once the university reopened, the observatory came to have variety of uses, such as being a classroom, a sorority house, and the location of the physics department. In 1889, Sarah Isom, a teacher at the university, put on Shakespeare’s As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew in the entrance of the observatory.

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture made its home in the east wing of the observatory in 1979 and continues to operate there today. Barnard Observatory was put on the list of the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was made a Mississippi Landmark in 1986. In 1989, the university started a $3 million renovation to the observatory, which was well documented by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s newsletter, the Southern Register. The observatory was expanded, while the original features of the building were repaired and preserved. The renovations were completed in 1992.

The east wing is currently comprised of offices and conference rooms, and the west wing has a lecture hall and the Gammill Gallery, which is used for documentary photography exhibitions.

Norma Barksdale
Center for the Study of Southern Culture Intern