Cumberland - Chapter 1: Cumberland

Hail, all hail to Cumberland,
Sing her praises ever.
To her mem’ry ever true,
We’ll forsake her never.
Like the Phoenix from the ashes,
She arose to live again.
Ever glorious as before,
Both today and evermore.
- Cumberland University alma mater

     The whole sordid tale began innocently enough in an unassuming little whistle stop, tucked away about twenty-five miles east of Nashville, called Lebanon. It’s in this municipality of antebellum homes, with stately white-pillared porches, that you would find (if you look hard enough that is) a small southern university called Cumberland. Nestled in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, the town of Lebanon (pronounced “LEB-nun” by Middle Tennesseans) was named after the abundance of cedar trees that grew in the area, reminding early settlers of the biblical land of cedars.

     According to the university bulletin, the town boasted a population of five thousand people, hardly a booming metropolis. Despite its modest number of citizens, the town of Lebanon was not without its share of attractions in those years. Aside from the handsome university and beautiful cedar forests, there was the annual Wilson County Fair, the majestic Cumberland River and a statue of Robert H. Hatton, which stood proudly in the town square.

     One thing Lebanon didn’t have was saloons. Not officially anyway, having been abolished in 1901. Being outlawed, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Despite efforts by the city founders to close them, there were reportedly no fewer than nine drinking establishments on or near the public square that the locals could patronize. Not that this was reason for worry. Regardless of what evil spirits passed through the lips of students and townsfolk on Saturday nights, there were plenty of churches to attend on Sunday morning to absolve them of their sins.

     The fall of 1916 was certainly a quiet, pastoral time in Lebanon, Tennessee. In less than a year, the country would be pulled into the First World War. This would be followed by the Roaring Twenties. Followed by the Great Depression. Then, finally, exactly twenty-five years and two months later, a surprise attack on an American naval base in Pearl Harbor would drag the country into the Second World War.

     For the moment, however, the time was innocent. People were drinking Coca-Cola at soda fountains. Norman Rockwell had just painted his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post, published on March 10 of that same year. Charlie Chaplin had introduced his Little Tramp a couple years back and D.W. Griffith had released Birth of a Nation the year before. Far from the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, ocean liners were the rage. And everywhere the suffrage movement was well underway as women strived for equality. It’s in this atmosphere of innocence and tranquility that Cumberland students returned from summer break that fateful fall to begin the new school year. Male and female students alike eagerly anticipated the types of futures that lay ahead of them in this exciting new era of opportunity and good fortune for those ambitious enough to go out and get it.

     While unprecedented prosperity was within reach to those who graduated from this fine southern university, the road for Cumberland to get to this point in history was not an easy one, having to survive a war between the states that divided the country in half and tore through their small community, leaving their school in ashes. Founded in 1843, the prestigious law school was added five years later where it would remain a vital part of the school in the decades that followed.

     The university would boast about its distinguished sons, pointing out “no law school in the country within the first half century of its existence has furnished the profession a more honorable and worthy body of graduates.” Led by Judge Nathan Green Jr., Cumberland would grow in reputation to become one of, if not the, most prestigious law schools in the entire south. Judge Green taught at Cumberland for sixty-three years and was named dean of the law school in 1882. In that time, the thousands of Cumberland alumni would come to include an “honor roll” of distinguished sons who have reached as high as the United States Supreme Court. Many had become state governors, members of both houses of the U.S. Congress, judges, ambassadors and a Secretary of State of the United States. Only Harvard University reportedly had a higher percentage of its graduates in Who’s Who in America.

     While early classes were conducted in a little brick church building or in the residences of faculty members, the magnificent University Hall was erected in 1844. Designed by master architect William Strickland, the three-story structure featured a divided porch, Corinthian columns and a Doric pediment. A tower was added at some point. By 1860 the hall had been enlarged to house all university departments - literary, law and theological.

     Unfortunately, the building would not survive the Civil War. When the fighting stopped and university operations resumed, all classes would go back to being held in church houses and residences for a while. Strickland, who had planned the Tennessee State Capitol, also designed two other notable buildings in the town of Lebanon: the Wilson County Courthouse and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. After University Hall was burned by soldiers in 1864, the courthouse was also lost to fire in 1881 and the church would be destroyed by a tornado in 1917.

     Memorial Hall, opened in 1896, became the new cornerstone of Cumberland University. A 50-acre field just to the southwest of town was chosen to be the new university campus where the building still stands today. Planned by Nashville architect William Crawford Smith, Memorial Hall shared the same designer with Kirkland Hall, the first building on the campus of Vanderbilt University. Both buildings are modified Gothic Revival in style and look strikingly similar, although the Cumberland building had to forgo some of the ornate details and stonework originally planned. Situated on top of a beautiful elevation overlooking the town, the three-story building is still the focal point of the university campus.

     At the time of the famous football game against Georgia Tech, Memorial Hall housed the College, the School of Engineering and the Conservatory of Music. The famous Cumberland School of Law was housed off campus at Caruthers Hall, named after university co-founders and including lecture rooms, a law library and a large auditorium. Known as the “Law Barn” by students, the foyer is adorned with class pictures that “attest to the quality of the Cumberland education.”

     The building also held chapel services each morning for those enrolled in the university. “In the interest of the College students a brief chapel service is conducted each day by some member of the Faculty,” read the Cumberland University Bulletin for 1916-17. “At these services, the simple truths of Christianity are stressed, the formation of right habits insisted on, the temptations peculiar to college men pointed out, and the worth of manly character emphasized. All students are required to attend.”

     This was, far and away, more of a God-fearing time in history than the world we live in today, particularly in the south. According to school bulletins, the town offered “well-appointed and progressive churches, at which all students have a friendly welcome.” The University itself had been born inside the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Lebanon and in 1906 the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America became the sponsor of the University. Religion was imbedded to most everything back then. Including a law education.

     The very first course of instruction listed in the university curriculum was the English Bible. “A careful study of the history and literature of the English Bible is essential to the scholar,” students were informed upon their enrollment at Cumberland University. “The Bible, more than any other literature, has influenced the trend of civilization in all ages; it has been the inspiration of writers, scientists, philosophers, statesmen, and all others whose lives and works have helped mankind Godward. The Bible contains not only the key to all philosophy of history, but therein may be found the life ideals, which lead to true worth in manhood and womanhood. The purpose of this study is to familiarize the student with the history of the Jewish people and with the rise and establishment of Christianity; also to open to him the rich literature of the Scriptures and its broad fields of thought and philosophy.”

     No story could be told about the history of Cumberland University, without acknowledging the contributions of Dr. G. Frank Burns in preserving that history. Dr. Burns was a noted Cumberland alumnus who passed away in 2009 at the age of 87. Prior to his passing, Dr. Burns had been a well-known author, educator, journalist and local historian. He was appointed University Historian at Cumberland in 1988, where he chronicled the history of the school, including the famous game the small law school played a role in.

     According to his obituary, Dr. Burns was a recipient of the University’s highest honor, the Award of the Phoenix, and had been the author of numerous books on local history, including Phoenix Rising! The Sesquicentennial History of Cumberland University 1842-1992, which chronicles the first 150 years of the small southern school. The book is dedicated to the memory of his father, George Frank Burns, who taught at Cumberland when Dr. Burns was a small child. In the book dedication, Burns described his father as a preacher, poet and teacher. It was his father, one of the first educators at the university, who penned the school song Cumberland My Cumberland, which was included in the Cumberland University yearbook for the class of 1916:

Cumberland My Cumberland
By G. Frank Burns

My Cumberland is dear to me—
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
Her fame is known from sea to sea—
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
Her sons have won their laurels great,
Her daughters prove a helpful mate.
Her teachers' work does not abate,
Cumberland, my Cumberland.

Her servants toil from day to day—
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
Yet satisfaction comes their way—
Cumberland, my Cumberland,
with zeal and love they labor hard.
Receive from students kind regard.
Their deeds are praised by country's bard,
Cumberland, my Cumberland.

Her hardy sons are known afar—
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
In churches, pews, and at the bar—
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
They teach and preach and plead a case;
Transform the black and yellow race.
From every sin, from all that's base,
Cumberland, my Cumberland.

Her daughters fair grace earthly halls-
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
Obedient to their master's calls—
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
They make a name in all the land.
For truth and right securely stand;
'Tis good, 'tis true, their life is grand,
Cumberland, my Cumberland.

Up with the flog-maroon and white—
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
Come, follow on and scale the height-
Cumberland, my Cumberland.
Cumberland, my mother, dear,
love thee more from year to year,
Thy name I speak both far and near,
Cumberland, my Cumberland.

     Although the Progressive Era would end when the United States entered World War I, widespread social activism and political activism was still very much en vogue. Theodore Roosevelt had been one of the first progressive voices and the era would result in the passing of the 18th and 19th Amendments, prohibiting alcohol and providing women the right to vote.

     Muckrakers in the media brought attention to issues like children working in factories, while Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle shined a mortifying light on deplorable conditions inside the meat packing industry.

     When the progressives weren’t liberating, they were regulating and banning to bring about social reform. Roosevelt, a progressive himself, would have to do battle with those voices, some who even wanted to ban the sport of football. The end of the Progressive Era would be known as the “Age of Reform” due to all the legislation passed by those who believed in government as a tool for change.

     In 1901, the same year the town of Lebanon was banning drinking establishments, the school first admitted women. And with the addition of budding young female coeds to the campus, came the need for rough, manly sports.

     In actuality, football had first been introduced to Cumberland back in 1894. As the new university was being constructed on what was to become the new Cumberland campus, an athletic field was built on the northwest corner which included a baseball diamond, track and, of course, a football field; All firsts at a university, which had always focused its attention on higher education and religious worship.

     Social change had found its way to the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. The tone on campus took a sudden turn from heartfelt hymns to raucous chants: 

Razzle dazzle, hobble, gobble,
Siz! Boom! Bah!
Cumberland! Cumberland!
Rah! Rah! Rah!

Hoorah! Hoorah!
Varsity! Varsity!
Rah! Rah!
Siz! Boom! Bah!
Cumberland!

     The boisterous cheers from the spectators ranged from the nonsensical to the outright violent:

Give 'em the axe, the axe. the axe.
Give em the axe, the axe, the axe,
W-H-E-R-E ?
Right in the neck, the neck, the neck!
Right in the neck, the neck, the neck!
Right in the neck, the neck, the neck!
T-H-E-R-E !

     As the crowds grew bigger, a covered grandstand was added to the athletic field. In 1902, the school began to receive some attention on the gridiron, according to University historian G. Frank Burns, with a 16 to 5 win over the school now known as Mississippi State. Getting its start in places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, football was now catching on in schools all across the country (despite its dangerous reputation and propensity for serious injury) and Cumberland was no different. The 1903 season delivered an impressive 6 to 0 victory over Vanderbilt and culminated in a post-season game with Clemson for the championship of the south, which ended with an 11 to 11 tie. The Cumberland Bulldogs, as they were known, would go on to be proclaimed southern champion.

     Although no one knew it at the time, this contest against the Clemson Tigers would one day factor, at least indirectly, into the infamous football game Cumberland would play in Atlanta some thirteen years later, on the yet-to-be-constructed Grant Field. Revenge is a dish best served cold, as they say, and the outcome of that post-season game had most certainly planted itself firmly in the craw of the coach of the Clemson team in more ways than one. Unfortunately, Cumberland’s success on the football field was short lived. The football program was dropped and reinstated more than once in the years that followed and the team achieved only marginal success before 1916 finally rolled around.

     Complicating matters for the struggling Cumberland football program was the hard financial times the school faced. Troubles that traced all the way back to the War Between the States. Difficult decisions would have to be made. Like the Great War in Europe that lingered off in the distance, like an ominous problem that would one day, most likely soon, have to be dealt with, so did the school’s economic dilemma. Despite an $8,000 grant from the U.S. government “as reparation for federal occupancy during the Civil War,” as well as the $15,000 the university received in the sale of Divinity Hall, which had housed the school’s theological department, the university was still facing a fiscal uncertainty that was causing many school administrators to lose sleep.

     Cumberland University, except for the law school, was continually operating on borrowed money - facing a three to four-thousand-dollar deficit by the end of the current year. Not that any of the students were aware of any of this. The university continued to function as it always had. The hallowed halls of Cumberland were built - and rebuilt - on faith and perseverance. They would weather any storm with dignity and honor.

     The 1916 academic year at Cumberland University looked to be an impressive one. Attracting students from all over the Deep South, the school offered four departments: The College of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, the Conservatory of Music and the Preparatory School. Students could earn a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Laws and Master of Arts. Tuition for the law school was $50 per term. To live in the college dormitory, it cost $20 with a roommate, and $25 without. Boarding with families ranged from $3.75 to $5 a week.

     Books for the junior class were another $8, if rented, and $37.25, if purchased. The school also charged a fee of $10 to cover unexpected contingencies. Although the university had small town familiarity between faculty and students, Cumberland expected disciplined behavior from all who attend. Each student is warned of this before he enrolls:

     The University lays upon the student two general requirements. The first is embraced in the motto, ''Semper praesens, semper paratus." Continued absence from class and neglect of lessons are offenses for which the student may be admonished or suspended. The second requirement is that he shall deport himself as a good citizen and a gentleman. In definition of this requirement, the Trustees, by special action, have declared the following as special offenses for which the student may be indefinitely suspended: "Intoxication, gambling, visiting drinking and gambling houses, acting riotously on the streets, and disturbing, by unseemly conduct, religious, literary, or educational meetings of citizens or students."

     For Cumberland University (as it was for much of this country burgeoning with hope and prosperity) the fall of 1916 was bringing to a close the last remaining year of an innocent era. The world had its fair share of problems, but the general consensus seemed to be that things were pretty good. For white middle and upper-class folks, life was one big Norman Rockwell painting. But the progressive winds had blown in big changes, even in sleepy little southern towns like Lebanon. And with those changes had come a new favorite American pastime that was wildly entertaining as well as horribly violent. It was unadulterated adrenaline and testosterone in a pure sport form. This was the real stuff. Men cheered. Women swooned. The players visited hospitals. Some never left.

     The times were changing at the proud southern law school. This was a world of new values and traditions. Wars and liberation were coming. Opportunities were on the rise and, in the eyes of many, morals were on the decline. Already, female ankles were being brazenly revealed by the most adventurous of hemlines. The only question remaining in this struggle of American values was which side Cumberland would wind up on? Would she adhere to order or chaos? Would she embrace barbarism or intellect? Her story is told in the school’s alma mater:

Hail, all hail to Cumberland, sing her praises ever.
To her mem’ry ever true, we’ll forsake her never.
Like the Phoenix from the ashes, she arose to live again.
Ever glorious as before, both today and evermore.

     The university had survived disaster before and arose again better than before. This unwavering belief that any adversity can be overcome had become the lifeblood of Cumberland. Arming graduates with the knowledge that, with enough courage and determination, they could accomplish anything.

     Almost exactly one-half century after the school came face to face with oblivion, the small southern law college was confronted with meeting an untimely end once again. At the heart of the whole sordid ordeal was a single, unsanctioned football contest, one that threatened to destroy the economic future of a prestigious law school and the virtue of a coaching legend. They were the passengers waving bon voyage from the deck of the Titanic as it pulled away. American football was the iceberg.

     Running through the names of the law students enrolled for the fall semester included names like D. R. Cope, Gentry Dugat, E. L. McDonald, C. E. Edwards, George T. Murphy, T. M. Gouger, E. W. McCall, Allen Poague, J. D Gauldin, B. F. Paty and E. D. McQueen. And all the way up, at the very top of the list, was the name of G. E. Allen. They were all young law students in the prime of their lives with their entire futures in front of them. Little did they all know, something terrible was about to befall their small, peaceful town that would put them at risk of losing it all; Something that would be written about for the next 100 years.


Written by Scott Larson
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