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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lucy Somerville Howorth, June 20, 22, and 23, 1975. Interview G-0028. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Southern woman excels in law school

In this excerpt, Howorth describes how she excelled at the top of her class while attending law school at the University of Mississippi in the early 1920s. Howorth recalls being quite cognizant of the fact that she was one of only two women in the law school and she describes how she sought to transgress gender boundaries, for instance, by spending time in the "Bull Room"—the male students' hangout. In addition, Howorth established it as her goal to deliver the senior oration upon her graduation. As a result, not only did she rise to the top of her class academically, but she became actively involved in various school organizations. The excerpt ends with a description of her commencement address which emphasized the importance of academic freedom.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lucy Somerville Howorth, June 20, 22, and 23, 1975. Interview G-0028. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CONSTANCE MYERS:
But you excelled at Old Miss, too?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
I took first honors. The story as to that, I've told it often. I will show you a picture of the law school, I think that I have it in the car that has just come and as you entered, off to the left, there was a round room that could have been used for a classroom and the boys had appropriated it for what they called "The Bull Room." Well, I recognized that they had a right to get off to themselves and talk like they wanted to talk among themselves, but I also recognized that the room was in the Law School Building and as far as I was concerned, nothing was to be off limits, but that this would be handled discreetly. So, I would drop in there every once in awhile just to establish that I had a right to be there, but not enough to be a nuisance.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
The Bull Room.
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Yes. So one day, I came along, I think that it was the first week of the school semester and I was a few minutes ahead of class time and three or four of the boys were in there, we called them boys and I guess that they called me a girl, although most of them were actually war veterans. There were four or five sitting around there and so I went in and sat down and one of them began totalk to me and it was a nice young man and he said, . . . they called me Miss Somerville and he said, "Miss Somerville, we have been talking about you." I said, "A good thing that I came in." "Oh, no, we were having an argument. I said that you were smarter than anybody in the school, the law school, and these others said 'Oh, no, that Sid Berry can beat anybody.' " Sid had graduated the year before and had led the academic school. So, he was a good choice. And this Phillips said, "I bet that you could beat Sid Berry." I said, "Well, you may be putting your money on the wrong person. Sid is a nice man and I understand that he is very smart." "That's all right, you can take him on." So, take him on I did.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
How? A debate?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Well, knowing what was the assignment, and by that time, of course, I had had a lot of experience that most of these young men hadn't. I had studied at Columbia, I had competed with some real good minds. Now, I don't mean that they didn't have good minds, but they hadn't had anything like the education that I had. They hadn't had anything like Randolph-Macon. So, Sid. . . I always felt kind of sorry about it. When the quarter grades came in, I was a half a point ahead and when the half came in, I was two or three points ahead. So, he was either deciding that he couldn't have it close or . . . then, by the end of the second term, the summer, he was definitely about seven points or something like that behind. So, from then on, nobody came within ten points of my grade.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
But you set your goal on delivering this senior oration.
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Well, that was something else. I hadn't thought about that at first. I don't think that anybody does much, maybe some people do, but I didn't because I was helping start this dramatic club and then decided that the weekly newspaper needed some upbuilding and I persuaded them to let me edit a column, which I stole the title from The New Republic. I don't suppose that three people knew about The New Republic there, anyhow. "Books and Things." That's how I really worked with Faulkner, because he contributed to that column and while I never changed a word of anything that he put in, technically I edited his contributions. I did ask him for contributions and I did discuss what they were and I did print them. So, I was doing a good many little things besides sticking to the books. So, I thought it would be more or less automatic that whoever made the highest grades would be the class orator and then at commencement of the first year I was there, the man that had made the highest grade was not the class orator, but somebody further down the line was picked.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
How did that happen?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Politics, I guess, but anyhow it happened. I hadn't any idea of how it happened, I may have made guesses, which I've forgotten by now, but the thing was that I caught the significance that you not only had to have a high grade. So, I knew that there would be some strokes against me as a woman, that some of the people on the faculty committee would say, "Oh, well . . . " So, I did what I could and I don't know what all, but I do know that the dean's wife pulled for me and I do know that some of the faculty did. So, I was appointed class orator. The class orator was supposed to be the person who had made outstanding scholastic record and who had done the most for the student body. I am sure that they counted in this column in the paper, and the dramatic club, the Marionettes. . . . I was president of it the second year, the first year, Ben was president and there was a Scribbler Society, which was a chapter of a Greek letter honor society, but because they couldn't have any Greek letters on the campus, they called it The Scribblers. It only admitted men and so, I organized a group of women writers. We called it The Ravens. I deviled them into having a girls' basketball team and got out and acted as a referee for the games, got teams from two or three places. Believe me, it's work. I've always had respect for anreferee since then. (laughter) But I was pretty well known all over the campus.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Well, you told us this morning about your inspiration for getting this hard hitting commencement address. I wonder if you could tell it again?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
As I said this morning, I am basically an advocate. I may not look like it in all this free talking, but I don't like to make a speech to celebrate Decoration Day or something like that, you know. I like to be pleading a cause and of course, sometimes like that historical society, there was some sense to that, I was trying to make those younger people see what had motivated things and that there were people who had done things before. So, after I had agreed to be the class orator, I was worrying about what to put in there, to get my teeth into something. We had convocations there of the student body, they called them "chapel" and we had them about once a week or once every two weeks. So, I came to chapel and the chancellor of the university presided at this particular one. He didn't always. Usually, they had some minister or some outside speaker or something, but he decided to do this one. So, in the course of his remarks, he quoted from some statement that had been made at some institution. I think that perhaps it was by some parent who was upset that his son had heard something at this institution that had shaken his faith, something along that line, you know. He said, "Now, I want you, each and every one, when you go home to tell your parents that you will never hear anything at the University of Mississippi that will disturb your faith or which would upset them." So, that was my chapter and verse. I didn't think then and I don't think now that an education or an institution exists for any purpose except to stir and train the minds of the students and to just pour in a lot of pre-digested material is not the purpose of the institution in my judgement.