William W. Carson 19 July 1918 Letter

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From: DC0166s, Carson, William Waller, 1845- Reminiscences, 1918 and Undated (View Finding Aid)


I was the Professor of Mathematics [1] in Davidson College for six years- 1877 [2] to 1883 [3].

What most impressed me on first reaching the place was its quiet and seclusion. This appealed to me no little from the first. And the appeal grew all the stronger as time went by. The prospect of being buried there almost produced in me a feeling of nervous haste that the opportunity should be lost [4].

The most striking feature was the lack of money so evident at every turn [5]. The impression was not that of shiftlessness and neglect, but rather this – that everything in the way of an improvement or of repairs had run up against one and the same question, “Can it wait?” It was conceded all around that a leak in a leak in a roof could not wait. And so I do not recall a roof that seemed to have done much in the way of leaking [6].

A few after my arrival the students came in. The thing impressed me as to them then, and through the six years in which I had dealings with them, and through the thirty five years since my dealings with them as such ceased, was the idea that they were an exceptional body of young men – that they had decidedly more than their per capita of the force and brains and morals, and of the good breeding, of the nation. I am aware that Davidson turns out a black sheep now and then, but I want to say in this connection that I have meet many Davidson men since the time of which I speak – I have met them as grown men standing in their various lots under the responsibilities and grinding conditions of daily life, and I have met them on their jaunts as students and as groups of students, and I have always come back to this one idea, – That Davidson gets and turns out greatly more than its pro rata of the manhood, brains, and moral worth, of this nation.

My first impression of the faculty as individuals and of their wives was that they were wonderfully cordial, hospitable, and kind. After six years of contact with them all, and after thirty five years have passed I last looked into the face of any save a few, I want to say that my first impressions seem to have been in no been in no wise overdrawn – that every suggestion of cordiality, sympathy, and kindness, was realigned throughout the whole of my six years of contact with them.

My impression of the faculty as a body was that was entirely too ponderous, and that some of its carryings on were barbarous or even cruel. I could not see them, nor can I see now, why there should have been those weekly and time consuming meetings [7]– why the whole force of six [8] (later seven) men should come together every week to hear, discuss, and resolve about, trifling details that could wait, and indeed that would generally have adjusted have adjusted themselves if given half a chance. And I am yet of the opinion that any one of that six could, without the formality of a trail, have decidedly more speedily and even more sanely than the entire body, what to do with a Freshman even though his case had been complicated by the fact that the stone with which he sought to smash an upper sash had in reality passed through a lower. But when the question was one of morals I am of the opinion that the time of the other five was far from wasted. For I take it that no one of the five ever left that room without clearer views of the difference between right and wrong after hearing Col. Martin [9] point it out to some sinner.

The graver offenses of the students, so far as I am aware, were few, and there were well nigh limited to the occasional handing in of a dishonest paper. According to the military Laws of the Confederate States the penalty for violation of a “Safe Guard” was “Death.” But for any other grave offense it was “Death or such other punishment as may be ordained by the Court.” So at Davidson there was one offense as to which the Court apparently had no discretion. Whoever handed in a dishonest paper went home by the quickest route.

But the professors themselves were not without their temptations. I well remember a struggle through which I passed. To stop some petty pilfering from the dormitories that had become a nuisance the Faculty resolves one day that no negroes should be allowed on the campus except such as were given permits [10]. As I was Superintendent of Grounds [11] just then it developed on me to enforce this ruling. It soon appeared that a negro of shady reputation who had recently acquired a horse and cart was planning a huge monopoly in transportation. He had previously operated lore or less successfully, possibly with a wheel barrow, as the agent of several laundresses. But now he aspired to a wholesale business. So he came to me for a permit to enter the Campus for the weekly collection and return of the clothes. When this was refused he proceeded to argue the case with much more insistence but without success. At last in desperation he blasted out, “I tell you just how it is Mr. Carson. If you will let me go after that washing I will give you 25 cents.”

The above reference to a negro reminds me that we also had our troubles. It may interest other to know here one of these was roofed. The College paid its janitors somewhat more than laborers received on the adjacent farms. But the College had trouble in getting men on one occasion, though the farms apparently had none. [illegible] my perplexity I went to one of the janitors and in a hear to heart talk asked him to tell me frankly what the trouble was. He responded with his fullest confidence. His informed me that the trouble lay in the mental strain to which a janitor was necessarily subjected and that a man who plowed or chopped “don’t have to study about nothing” but that this would be very far from the case with one who had “to dust, or sweep, or take up ashes.” But to return –

As time went on after my arrival the conviction gradually forced itself on me that the professors, with scarcely and exception, were incessant workers and growing men – that each in his own narrow field was a real scholar and a veritable master of that which he had to reach. And so when I add as to the students, that, in addition to what I have already said of their brains, they were, in my opinion, an unusually studious and faithful set it is not strange that I think more as I thought then that the success of the teaching there was very great. They were idlers of course. But the great body of the students went there to learn, and learn they did indeed. I have said that the professor were working and growing men. This inevitably meant growth of their several departments, and hence of the college as whole. But there was the ever present absence of the almighty dollar – the ever present necessity of deferring every expense that possibly could wait. It was a question of survival rather than of growth. And so during the entire six years of my stay the College as a whole really entered on next to nothing that was new. The growth was within the individual departments.

There was one exception. In the fall of 1877 sub-Freshman classes [12] were provided to take care of the lame ducks [13] that had to come limping to us or to stay at home – this because of the lack of schools. These classes were taught at first by the Professors of Lain, Greek, and mathematics. But after two or three years they were taken charge of by an Instructor. Small in itself as was such an addition to the teaching force it marked the beginning of a new era. Davidson had begun to grow. The college is now a strongly rooted tree of vigorous growth. Its branches reach for the east and to the south and the west and even towards the north. Man can not realize what a blessing it is to the state the nation, and the church, or what a blessing it is yet to be.

I am, so far as I know, the sole survivor of that part of its day of small things of which I write. And as such I have been testimony to the zeal, the faithfulness, and the success with which, in my opinion, these departed men did their work.

William Waller Carson

July 19, 1918 [14] [15]

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[1] He was named head of the department of Mathematics in 1877. He previously had taught applied mathematics and Civil Engineering at Virginia (Shaw 149).

[2] Davidson College in the 1877-1878 school year had 85 enrolled students (Davidson College Catalog, 10)(hereafter DCC) and nine faculty members (DCC 6). “Two regular course of study” were offered in this year: The Classical Course and the Scientific Course. Also an Eclectic Course was offered to students looking to go into more specialized fields of study (DCC 16). The three courses of study in the Classical Course were Greek, Latin, and Mathematics (DCC 19) and the Scientific Course offered a range of classes while focusing on math and science (DCC 23). Carson taught classes in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

[3] Davidson College in the 1882-1883 school year had 118 students (DCC 13) and ten faculty member (DCC 6). The courses of study were almost identical to those offered in 1877 (DCC). Carson left in 1883 to accept a professorship at the University of Tennessee (Shaw 149). He was one of two professors to resign that year, the other being Professor Sampson, and their resignations were accepted in June (Shaw 152).

[4] “Part of the emoluments (gifts) received by the professors during a part of the College life was the gift of a family plot in cemetery (Shaw 151). Despite the wish expressed in his letter to be buried at Davidson, there are no records of him being buried on campus (Davidson College Cemetery 6).

William W. Carson's grave
William W. Carson’s grave

[5] During the 1870’s the college was on a “very tight budget of around 11,000 dollars” a year. This was a result of a small endowment with a low yield (Beaty History 129). The college’s money problems were a result of the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War (Semi-Centenary 154).

[6] There was very little money to pay for repair work during this time in college history. The burden of repairs often fell on faculty members (Semi-Centenary 154).

[7] These faculty meetings were usually uneventful, but disciplinary and college issues were sometimes resolved during these meetings. Every meeting started with a prayer and roll call (Davidson College Faculty Minutes 424-426).

[8] A. D. Hepburn, John R. Blake, William J. Martin, Rev. J. F. Latimer, John R. Sampson, W. W. Carson

[9] William Joseph Martin was a professor of Chemistry, Geology, and Natural History at Davidson College from the years 1869-1887. He was vice president from 1884-1896 and acting President in 1887-1888 (Alumni Catalogue 25). He was known for building the “Chemistry Department from nothing at all” and the Martin Chemistry building was named in his honor. He earned the rank of Colonel in the Civil War, where he lead the 28th North Carolina regiment of the Confederacy in battles such as Gettysburg and Fredericksburg (Davidson College Encyclopedia). He died in 1896 in Davidson, NC (Alumni Catalogue 25).


Documentation of petition to ban blacks from campus. Courtesy of Davidson Archives
Documentation of petition to ban blacks from campus. Courtesy of Davidson Archives

The petition to disallow blacks on campus who did not have a permit

[11] Carson was made Superintendent of Grounds in 1880. The job had previously been the first non-faculty administrative position of campus, but the trustees gave the position back to a faculty member in order to avoid having to pay for the position. Carson’s role as Superintendent of Grounds is probably responsible for his fixation of the frugalness of the College. From 1881-1882 he spent 2,000 on things such as repairs. For example when the well walls collapsed, he was responsible for repairing it (Beaty History 133)


Explanation of the sub-freshman class in the Davidson College Catalogue
Explanation of the sub-freshman class in the Davidson College Catalogue

[13] After Davidson College raised the standards of admission, more students began to be denied admission. These students are whom Carson describes as “lame ducks. In order “to provide for these ducks without lowering its admission standards, Davidson had recourse once more to a solution often used before, the preparatory class” (Beaty History 127).

[14] Davidson College in the 1917-1918 school year had 20 faculty member (DCC 13) in addition to assistants and administrators (DCC 14-15). The College had 394 enrolled students the prior year (DCC 8). Two bachelor degrees were offered in this academic year: A. B. and B. S. degrees (DCC 68). In addition, it was also possible to earn a Masters degree (DCC 70).

[15] William Waller Carson was born in Nathcez, Mississippi on June 2, 1845 and died on February 2,1930. He graduated from Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). He taught applied mathematics and civil engineering at Washington College, University of Virginia, and Tennessee. He was a member and former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Engineering Association of the South, and the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Sciences (Alumni Catalogue 27). He wrote this letter at the request of Davidson historian Mary D. Beaty. She included information in this letter in her College History.

Works cited
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Beaty, Mary D. A History of Davidson College. Davidson, NC: Briarpatch, 1988. Print.

Davidson College Catalog, 1917-1918. Davidson. Davidson College Office of Communications. [1917].

Davidson College Catalog, 1877-1878. Davidson. Davidson College Office of Communications. [1877].

Davidson College Catalog, 18-1878. Davidson. Davidson College Office of Communications. [1877].

Davidson College Faculty Minutes. RG 2/3.2. Presidents Office. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, Davidson, NC.

Lester, Malcolm. A Census of the Davidson College Cemetery: Davidson, North Carolina. Davidson, NC: M. Lester, 1996. Print.

Lingle, Thomas W. Alumni Catalogue of Davidson College, Davidson, N.C., 1837-1924. Charlotte, NC: Presbyterian Standard Pub., 1924. Print.

Shaw, Cornelia Rebekah. Davidson College. New York: Fleming Revell, 1923. Print.

Transcription and annotation author: Alexander Herron.
Date: May 2014.
Cite as: Herron, Alexander, annotator. 19 July 1918 William W. Carson letter. DC0166s.
Available: https://davidsonarchivesandspecialcollections.org/archives/digital-collections/william-w-carson-letter-19-jul-1918.

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