Last fall, five Buchanan Fellows at the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries began a project to research Vanderbilt University’s first decade, from 1875 to 1885, and curate an online exhibit about what they discovered. In the process, the fellows learned how to find supporting materials in the library, interpret historical objects, examine historically significant manuscripts and documents from Special Collections, and place all of them in the context of the university’s—and the nation’s—history.
“The idea for Vanderbilt history topics came about when we were researching materials for the upcoming sesquicentennial” in 2023, says Celia Walker, associate university librarian. “We’re hoping we can use this content to bring a fuller presentation of the university’s history through the eyes of our students.”
Cornelius Vanderbilt’s initial donation was made in 1873, the official date of the university’s founding. An exhibit on Vanderbilt’s second decade will be a Buchanan Fellows project in fall 2021 and will be available to view online by the end of the semester.
The Buchanan Library Fellowship program—endowed in 2015 by Richard D. Buchanan, BA’57, MD’61, and Poppy Buchanan, BSN’61—provides immersive learning experiences that develop career-ready skills and support lifelong learning for undergraduates.
The following is adapted from Taking Root: Vanderbilt University’s First Decade, 1875–1885, curated and written by fall 2020 Buchanan Fellows Tucker Apgar, Donyea James, Joshua Woods, Yisu Yang and Stanley Zhao with help from library staff members Carla Beals, Mary Anne Caton, Teresa Gray and Kathleen Smith.
All images courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives
From 1875 to 1885, students grew increasingly disgruntled with Chancellor Landon C. Garland’s strict way of running the university. Specifically, there was discontent over the absence of legal fraternities, student publications, intercollegiate sports and what they considered an enriching social life. One example of student resistance was Liberty Hall, a boarding house dubbed a “moral curse” by Garland. The students living there quickly managed to establish a system of self-governance, all the while chanting their motto: “Give me liberty—better food and lower prices.” Eventually, Garland relented in his aversion to campus housing, and Methodist Bishop Holland N. McTyeire built four more dormitories, creating West Side Row.
The first Founder’s Day on May 27, 1876, celebrated Cornelius Vanderbilt’s birthday with a packed schedule. The grand celebration of the “Commodore,” who had died the previous January, underscored the relationship between patron and client during the Gilded Age—a relationship that served as a model to multimillionaire philanthropists like the Rockefellers, who later provided the university with funds to build Kirkland Hall and donations to support the School of Nursing and Peabody College.
John Fulton was a Vanderbilt staff member from 1885 to 1914. Before coming to the university, Fulton was a house slave at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. While Fulton’s 400 wallpapered photos do attest to the relationship he formed with students and faculty, beneath them resides a deeper racial hierarchy to which his basement placement attests.
In preparation for the first classes in the Scientific and Literary Department in 1875, Chancellor Landon C. Garland made order after order, accumulating more than 300 scientific instruments. Garland proudly showed visitors the collection—some of the most advanced devices and equipment of the era—to demonstrate Vanderbilt’s seriousness as an institution of higher education. (Anne Rayner)