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The First Outreach: The University of Nashville

By Towner Blackstock (Davidson 1994), Curator of Archives

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Founded in 1850, Phi Gamma Delta's third chapter at the University of Nashville in Tennessee was destined to a short life. However, its members would on several occasions play roles in the Fraternity's expansion to new campuses.

In December 1849, the Grand Chapter at Jefferson College, Pennsylvania, received a petition for a charter from the University of Nashville. This was the first request since the establishment of the chapter at Washington College in June, 1848. The brothers were inclined to approve the petition; after all, Nashville had been called the "Athens of the West" because of the quality of its university. After corresponding with the petitioners, the Grand Chapter approved the charter on January 9, 1850. John S. Colmery (Washington 1848) served as the installing officer. By February 22, the new chapter had written back "informing us of their organization and future glorious prospects."

Correspondence continued through at least May between the Grand Chapter and the Nashville chapter.  Despite its reputation, the University of Nashville was plagued with financial difficulties, as had practically every college of the time. This and many other issues, including faculty upheaval and plans to move the campus, caused the trustees to suspend the undergraduate operations of the University at the beginning of October, 1850.2

No mention of this event is found in the minutes of the Grand Chapter. But the December 21, 1850 minutes note that "a letter from Nashville was read, giving us the hope of having a Chapter established at the University of North Carolina." Apparently one of the brothers, Felix Grundy McGavock (Nashville 1850), was preparing to transfer to Chapel Hill after the closure of Nashville.

At Chapel Hill, McGavock took advantage of a provision in the Fraternity’s Constitution for members who transferred to schools without a chapter. It stated, "he may in his own person apply for a charter, therewith furnishing a list of the names of those he proposes for membership . . . . If the charter be granted, the applicant aforesaid shall himself be appointed legate [installing officer] . . . ."  Within a few months of his arrival, he recruited sufficient numbers; the charter was granted on March 14, 1851. By May 10, a letter was received by the Grand Chapter indicating that McGavock had installed the chapter and been elected president.

About the same time, a petition was received from Union University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. On February 5, 1851 the charter was granted, and Lucien Wash (Nashville 1850) was appointed Legate. He successfully installed the chapter on February 26. Union would become a lynchpin in the antebellum growth of the Fraternity [see article]. Wash would again serve as legate at Bethel College, Kentucky, in 1856.

A third Nashville initiate was active in attempts to expand the Fraternity. Another petition appeared from the University of Virginia, sent by John Spence (Jefferson 1850). At its May 14, 1851 meeting the Grand Chapter granted a charter. On June 18 they wrote the legate, Levi W. Reeves (Nashville 1850) regarding the installation. The reply from Reeves was read on September 22, 1851, "stating his reasons" for not installing the chapter. The Grand Chapter evidently found his reasons sufficient, and on November 15 they determined to make "the gentlemen at the University of Virginia informed of the cause of the delay in establishing their chapter." Apparently the installation never occurred.

Presumably the chapter at Nashville ceased when the University closed. But on June 23, 1851, the Grand Chapter read a letter from Robert H. McEwen, Jr. (Nashville 1850) "in reference to the Nashville Chapter."  The secretary "was ordered to inform Bro. McEwen . . . that he had the power and could legally appoint Bro. Rawlings to any office."  No further correspondence was ever recorded from Nashville. The 1856 and 1862 catalogues indicate that three brothers served as chapter president: original charter member John W. Stewart, McEwen and Rawlings. Later catalogues have no such indication for McEwen and Rawlings.  Thus a mystery remains. Why would McEwen need to appoint another brother as chapter president?  Perhaps a few brothers held the charter during part of 1851, awaiting the reopening of the University.  This makes sense, as the University Trustees had anticipated reopening the University in January, 1852.  But this did not occur.

A successful medical school opened under the name of the University in October 1851 with 121 students; in a few years, this grew to over 400 students. The medical department's success may have delayed the reopening of the undergraduate program. So did the sale and demolition of the main academic building.  In the fall of 1854 the University finally reopened at a new campus, but was troubled by low numbers and a dissatisfied faculty. Seeking a new approach, the Trustees agreed to absorb the Western Military Institute in 1855; the undergraduate program adopted the military education. By this late date, the brothers were apparently no longer organized and no one moved to revive the chapter.

In 1875 Vanderbilt University absorbed Nashville’s medical department, while the remainder of the University of Nashville became the Peabody Normal School, a teachers' college. In 1909 the school was renamed the Peabody College for Teachers. Peabody became a school of Vanderbilt University in 1979. An historical marker indicates the location of the second University of Nashville campus.

Felix Grundy McGavock (Nashville 1850, North Carolina 1851).

Felix Grundy McGavock came from "one of the most prominent and distinguished families of the 19th century."1  His grandfather Felix Grundy had been a U.S. Representative, Attorney General, and Senator.  His elder brother Randal William McGavock (1826 - 1863) also attended Nashville, received a law degree at Harvard in 1849, and just nine years later became Nashville’s mayor.

The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville has a portrait of Felix Grundy McGavock. He is buried in Nashville’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Also, his University of Nashville medical school dissertation has been made available on-line by the Vanderbilt Medical Center. The additional biographical information found below is from that Web site at

The author of this dissertation, Felix Grundy McGavock, 1832-1897, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Nashville Medical School. After graduation, Dr. McGavock pursued two careers, agriculture and medicine. In 1857, Felix Grundy McGavock and his wife moved to Mississippi County, Arkansas, where he managed an 1800 acre plantation and developed an extensive medical practice.

During the Civil War, Felix Grundy McGavock remained a farmer and demonstrated that cotton could be successfully cultivated with white labor. After the war, cotton was in great demand and brought from 70 to 90 cents per pound. Dr. McGavock went to New York City and Chicago to hire German, Irish, and Chinese immigrants to work on his Arkansas plantation. He paid $20 per month and provided board for his workers. He was also a horticulturist of note, experimenting with orchard and grain crops. Dr. McGavock served one term in the Arkansas legislature, 1881-83. He was famed for his generosity and hospitality and was considered the most remarkable man in Mississippi County, Arkansas. Felix Grundy McGavock died in 1897 and was buried in Nashville, Tennessee.


Bell, Dickinson.
 Graduated 1850. From Greenville, MS. Served as chapter treasurer. Nephew of John Bell, Whig presidential candidate in 1860. Married Mary Robertson Harris, daughter of State Supreme Court Justice William L. Harris. Sheriff, Bolivar County MS 1854-1861 and 1865-1866. Lieutenant, Co. H, 1st Mississippi Cavalry.
Lewis, Clarence. From Nashville, TN. (Not in the 1860 Nashville census.)
Martin, William S. From Dover, TN. Lawyer.
McEwen, Robert Houston. From Nashville, TN. Born July 28, 1832. Lawyer and judge. Received LLB from College of New Jersey. Died November 17, 1877 at Nashville.
McGavock, Felix Grundy. From Nashville, TN. Founder and legate of Epsilon Chapter at the University of North Carolina, 1851. See biography above.
Rawlings, Edward G. From Pine Bluff, AR. Physician.
Reeves, Levi Woodbury, Jr. Graduated 1850. From Murfreesboro, TN. Lawyer. Rutherford County death records indicate a Levi Reeves died in 1881.
Smith, George Burwell. Graduated 1850. From Nashville, TN.  The 1860 census of Nashville shows a 27 year old physician by that name. A George Smith is listed in the 20th Tennessee Infantry, CSA, which was recruited in part from Nashville (Davidson County).  However, there were many George Smiths in both Confederate and Union Tennessee units from other counties.
Stewart, John William. From Memphis, TN. Born November, 1824 in Rogersville, Hawkins Co., TN. Served as chapter president. Taught in Paris, TN 1850-53; principal of Female seminary in Memphis 1853-61. CSA: Captain, O.O. (ordnance officer), staff of Major-General Alex P. Stewart. (Crute).  4th Lieutenant Artillery, 1861-62.  Died June, 1864, in service at Auburn, AL. (Unfinished Catalogue)
Wash, Lucien. Graduated 1850. From Bowling Green, KY. Served as chapter secretary. Legate for Delta Chapter at Union University, 1851, and Centre College, 1856. Lawyer. [Cumberland Co., KY]


More Early Phi Gam History:


1. From the book, "A Walking Tour of Mt. Olivet Cemetery" By W. Ridley Willis II
2. Merriam, Lucius Salisbury; Higher Education in Tennessee (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1893) p. 41

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