Did You Know? UM’s Sarah Isom Center Has An Interesting Namesake

Isom, hired at UM in 1885, was the South's first female faculty member at a co-ed institution of higher learning

Sarah Isom

Sarah Isom

It’s always interesting to research the people the University of Mississippi names its buildings and various campus centers after.

Mary Stanton Knight, my University Communications coworker, has written pieces for this blog in the past about some of the namesakes for our campus buildings. Recently, I was looking through some UM historical information and found out about a person worthy of another blog post.

UM’s Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies was established at Ole Miss in 1981 to “address the changing roles and expectations of women students, faculty and staff.” The center’s website notes UM has provided educational opportunities for women longer than any other state university in the South. UM opened its doors to women in 1882. The website says that in the first year, 11 women registered for classes, but today women make up half of the student body.

Among the other interesting information on the center’s website is the story of its namesake:

Sarah Isom was the first female faculty member at the University of Mississippi and the first female faculty member at a coeducational institution of higher learning in the Southeast. She was born in Oxford, Mississippi, in the early 1850′s. Her parents were Dr. Thomas Dudley Isom, a physician and one of the town’s leading citizens, and Sarah McGehee Isom, formerly of South Carolina.

After receiving her early education in her hometown, “Miss Sallie” attended Augusta Seminary in Staunton, Virginia, where her special talent in drama and public speaking was recognized. She later studied with James Murdock at the Philadelphia School of Expression and George Riddle and Madame Janauschek in Boston. Highly praised by her professors and others who heard her perform, she appeared destined for a career on the stage. However, she returned home instead.

In 1885, the Board of Trustees elected her to fill the Chair of Elocution at the University of Mississippi. Since no woman had previously been included in the faculty, her selection was preceded by interesting correspondence between the Board’s Secretary and former Chancellor F.A.P. Barnard.

For the next 20 years, until her death, Miss Isom taught oratory to aspiring young politicians and other public figures, gaining appreciation and respect for her ability to train them to be effective readers and speakers. A striking redhead with a forceful personality, she became the subject of many tantalizing legends, some of which may actually have been true.