Mississippi

Elijah Wilson Lyon and The Progressive Tradition among the Lyon Family of Southeast Mississippi

Note: A few weeks ago, Renegade South published a story of murder and mayhem among the Lyon and Landrum families of Jones County. Accusations of murder notwithstanding, the southeastern Mississippi Lyon family is better known for the progressive political views and accomplishments of several of its descendants. Dr. Elijah W. Lyon, we have seen, was likely “Dr. Lyon,” the populist listed from Jasper County in 1894.  And, as I note in Long Shadow of the Civil War, in 1920, Elijah’s first cousin once removed, Thomas J. Lyon, was the Socialist candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Mississippi’s Sixth District. This same Thomas J. Lyon married Theodocia Collins, daughter of Unionist/Populist Jasper Collins.

Summarized below, with permission from Keith and Donnis Lyon, is a brief biography of yet another illustrious member of the Lyon family: Elijah W. Lyon, grandson and namesake of the populist, Dr. Elijah W. Lyon. This younger E. W. Lyon was a historian and president of Pomona College from 1941 until 1969 .

Elijah W. Lyon was born in 1904 in Heidelberg, Mississippi. As a young man, his goal was to become a journalist. Soon, however, he discovered the study of history, and accordingly changed his plans. An outstanding student at the University of Mississippi, he was elected senior class president and appointed editor of the college newspaper.  Soon after, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to St. John’s College at Oxford.

After returning to the United States, Elijah became assistant professor of history at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute. He then moved on to Colgate University, where he was named head of the history department in 1934.

In 1941, Lyon was appointed president of Pomona College (one of the five colleges of the Claremont College complex in southern California). Until 1969, he helped shape its reputation as a leading liberal arts institution.

According to journalist Roxane Arnold in a 1989 article, “almost as soon as he arrived at Pomona, he found himself in turbulent times, first because of the outset of World War II and then into the McCarthy era. Throughout it all, he is said to have stood tall in defending academic freedom.”

“After retiring, Lyon returned once again to history, writing more history books and speaking at major colleges throughout the country. To honor him, a professorship was established in his name in 1969; and then in 1989, ground-breaking was held on campus for the college’s newest dormitory–the E. Wilson Lyon Court.”

Elijah W. Lyon was more than a skilled administrator, however; he was a “scholar’s scholar” who made it a point to recruit a strong faculty that set “the tone for what is taught in classrooms there today.” According to David Alexander, Pomona’s president in 1989, Lyon  “felt his paramount duty was the appointment of a strong faculty.  For 28 years, Wilson Lyon applied his view of liberal education to the development of Pomona College and what the college is today is the product of those dreams.”

President E. Wilson Lyon, 1966
Charles P. Cross
Oil on canvas, 431/2 x 511/2”
Gift of Gladys K. Montgomery

The 28-year presidency of Elijah Wilson Lyon (1941-1969) was the longest in Pomona’s history. The College we know today owes much to his leadership, and his History of Pomona College (1977) remains the most reliable source of information about the College. Lyon’s portrait was commissioned on the occasion of his 25th year as president.

Books by Elijah Wilson Lyon:

The history of Pomona College, 1887-1969 (1977)

Man Who Sold Louisiana: The Career of Francois Barbe-Marbois (1975)

Louisiana in French Diplomacy, 1759-1804 (1974)

The History of Louisiana, Particularly of the Cession of That Colony to the United States of America co-authored with Francois Barbe-Marbois (1976)

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

3 replies »

  1. Vikki,

    I so love your blog! Enjoy the various comments and additional information posted by your readers. Only sorry that I don’t have any old MS family stories to contribute.
    (My grandpa, Burton Bell Gentry 1892-1962) was born in NB and relocated with his family to Long Beach CA in 1900. He later became a blue collar Socialist via the Wobblie movement. Does this count? Probably not.

    About Elijah Wilson Lyon and Pomona College. Sorry if this is a dumb question. (Can’t help it. All part of my DNA) But is this the Pomona College which is located in Southern CA?

    Thanks for your time.

    Vikky (Wilburn) Anders in San Diego. (Not related to the Welborns noted in your books. Different emigrant line. The Welborns noted in your book (reportedly) share a consanguineous relationship with President Barack Obama.

  2. Thanks, Vikky. glad you like the post!

    Your grandpa sounds like he fits right in with some of the Southerners who appear on Renegade South! (What is NB?)

    Thanks for pointing out that I didn’t identify the California location of Poma College. I’ve corrected that.

    There must be a connection SOMEWHERE between your Welborns and those who came to Jones county. We just haven’t found it yet.

    Vikki

  3. The following comment from Judi Robertson was originally added to my post, “Why I Wrote the Free State of Jones.” I have re-posted it here for those interested in the Elijah W. Lyon family.

    Vikki

    Thanks for this blog! I’m a great grand daughter of Rufus U. Lyon, youngest son of Nicholas Lyon. I’ve been researching Elijah W. Lyon today to get his conflicting Civil War story straight. All the comments on your blog are very helpful and I will follow up by reading your book. Elijah W. Lyon enlisted in the 27th Regiment of the Mississippi Infantry Co H CSA. He was captured and sent to Camp Chase Ohio. On 3rd June 1863 he enlisted in Co F 11th Ohil Cavalry, a unit of 36 Union soldiers and 67 CSA POWs. His subsequent service with this unit was on the Overland Trail into Dakota Territory. Family stories indicate that he arrived home in Jasper County MS in chains. Some records indicate that he was a medical doctor, not a dentist. He did not invent Dr. Lyons toothpowder; that was the invention of Dr.Israel Whitney Lyon of Needham MA 1827-1907, who made a fortune from this product.

    If you ever visit Jasper Co, do stop at Evergreen/Ebenezer Cemetery to the west of Heidelberg. It is on Co Rd 8 in Barton Green’s pasture. This was the cemetery for Ebenezer Baptist Church, rebuilt closer to town on HWY8. The little cemetery is lovely with wildflowers among the graves. Google it! Elijah’s grave always has a US flag so someone still knows about him. His son Rufus ordered his stone from the US govt in the 1930′s. And by the way, Nicholas Lyon was killed by Indians as he rode by the old Ebenezer church in 1858. Again, thanks for opening some new avenues of research.

    Judi Robertson

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