Henry Malcolm Withers was born in Culpeper, Virginia, in 1845. In 1863, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and served for the remainder of the Civil War in the 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, under John Mosby, a unit known as Mosby’s Rangers. After the war, Withers studied law at the University of Virginia from 1868 to 1870. He left for Kansas City, Missouri, in 1870, where he became a prominent member of the city bar, the Democratic Party, and the Missouri Division of the United Confederate Veterans. As an orator at UCV events, Withers spoke about the pure Anglo-Saxon blood of Southern people, the importance of teaching pro-Confederacy histories in schools, and his belief that Black Americans were inferior to whites and should be deported to save white civilization. He died in Kansas City in 1908.
Law School Dean Risa Goluboff has charged a committee of alumni, faculty, staff, and students to recommend whether she should pursue, through established University channels, the removal of Withers’s name from the Law School’s building. More
Naming Henry Malcolm Withers Hall
In 1981, Henry M. Withers’s daughter, Lacy Withers Armour, passed away. Her will stipulated that a gift be made from her estate to the University of Virginia in honor of her father. In 1983, Armour’s estate pledged to donate $3 million to the University of Virginia, and $2.8 million was earmarked to endow Lacy Withers Armour scholarships for law students. The remaining $200,000 was directed to the UVA College of Arts & Sciences for undergraduate scholarships. The Armour gift, paid in regular installments over a 10-year period, was placed in a permanently endowed fund held by the Rector and Board of Visitors, with the Law School receiving a percentage of the income to fund its Armour Scholarships. Members of the Law School Class of 1986 were the first students to receive Armour Scholarships.
In recognition of the Armour gift, the University named its “Phase I” law school building Henry Malcolm Withers Hall. Since the law school’s move to North Grounds in 1974, the main law building with classrooms and the library had gone unnamed. Today the building is often referred to as Withers-Brown Hall. Walter L. Brown Hall, a 1979 addition that joins Withers Hall, is not under consideration for renaming.
At a 1984 naming ceremony for Withers Hall, Laurance H. Armour III, great-grandson of Henry Malcolm Withers, spoke about how the family hoped the new Armour Scholarships would encourage exceptional students in need of financial assistance to attend law school and to work to solve societal problems. Armour also stated that Henry M. Withers had paid for his legal education at the University of Virginia with money he obtained from a train robbery while serving under John Mosby during the Civil War.
Contemporaneous Responses to the Withers Hall Naming
Honoring a Confederate veteran did not go unnoticed at the time of Withers Hall’s naming. In February 1985, members of the Law School’s Black Law Students Association used letters to the editors of the Virginia Law Weekly to discuss problems that they faced at UVA Law. In the first letter, a second-year law student and member of the Black Law Students Association discussed Withers Hall:
The final insult to black law students is the Administration's decision to name the Law School building "Henry Malcolm Withers Hall". Withers was a soldier and supporter of the Confederate Army. Naming the Law School building after a Confederate soldier shows an appalling lack of sensitivity on the part of the Administration. There is nothing glorious or romantic about the Confederacy. The Confederacy represents a society that raped our great-grandmothers and emasculated our great-grandfathers. To pay tribute to a man such as Withers is to glorify a society that violated all the laws of human decency.
On March 1, 1985, a law student wrote an article in the Virginia Law Weekly in which she recounted warning a black friend who had recently been admitted to UVA Law about racism at the law school. She cited the recent naming of Withers Hall:
Then I explained to her that she really should not be surprised by any of the blatantly racist practices perpetrated by the Law School. After all, the edifice is named after a Confederate soldier, Henry Malcolm Withers.
Not everyone at the time agreed that the naming was problematic. The University’s Board of Visitors approved the naming of Withers Hall in recognition of Lacy Armour’s gift at their meeting on January 27, 1984.
Biography of Henry Malcolm Withers
Henry Malcolm Withers was born in Culpeper, Virginia, in 1845. His father, Pickett Withers, served as a colonel in the Virginia Militia and owned a 761.5-acre farm in Culpeper County in an area known as Jeffersonton. Withers was the youngest of six children. The 1860 Federal Census listed Withers as living in Culpeper with his parents, siblings and uncle. The Federal Slave Schedule for 1860 listed 20 enslaved individuals at the property, ranging in age from 60 years to 9 months.
Confederate Army Service
On June 10, 1863, Withers enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private in Company A, 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, led by Captain John Singleton Mosby and known as Mosby’s Rangers. Withers was 18 at the time. In a 1908 interview with the Kansas City Journal about his experiences as a Mosby Ranger, a unit organized for irregular warfare, Withers recalled participating in skirmishes with Union troops, capturing Union officers during night raids, and participating in the unit’s lucrative ambush of a passenger train carrying Union paymasters, known as the Greenback Raid of 1864. Withers served with Mosby’s Rangers until the end of the Civil War.
University of Virginia School of Law
After the war, Withers studied law at the University of Virginia from 1868 to 1870. In June 1870, by vote of the faculty, Withers received a certificate of distinction in his classes for both of the Law Department “Schools,” which meant that his exam scores put him in the top division of his classes. The schools in the Law Department at the time were the School of Common and Statute Law, and the School of Equity, Mercantile, and International Law. Withers did not receive a bachelor of law degree from UVA, which was common at the time since that degree was not required to practice as a lawyer in Virginia or other states.
While at UVA, Withers was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. He continued to be active in this fraternity as an alumnus and served for a time as treasurer of the Zeta graduate chapter in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1889, Withers served as second vice-president of the Kansas City alumni of the University of Virginia at the first meeting of this alumni organization.
Withers left for Kansas City, Missouri, in 1870, and spent most of his legal career in private practice. He was a member of the Kansas City Bar and the Missouri State Bar Association. In the 1880s and 1890s, he practiced law with Albert Strother. The firm’s 1892 listing in Hubbell’s Legal Directory stated that they practiced in state and federal court with specialties in “corporation, commercial, real estate, and insurance litigation,” as well as title searches, mortgages, deeds, and powers of attorney.
In addition to law, Withers was active in city business circles. He held stock in several gold and silver mines located in the Western United States. Starting around 1902, Withers and his wife also made “considerable” investments in real estate with H. H. Kirkpatrick in South McAlester, Oklahoma, a rapidly developing hub for the surrounding coal mining industry.
Although Withers spent much of his legal career in private practice, he made a name for himself in Kansas City through city politics. Quickly upon arriving in Kansas City, Withers became involved in the city’s Democratic Party, which was the political home for most of the city’s ex-Confederates locally, and which nationally sought to beat Ulysses S. Grant, gain amnesty for former Confederates, and support free trade. In 1872, Withers announced his candidacy for the position of City Attorney for Kansas City, an elected and political position that he eventually won. A letter to the editor of the Kansas City Times in favor of Withers’ candidacy in March 1872 claimed that Wither “thoroughly identified with the progressive spirit of our city,” and the letter assured readers that “the Democracy could not, in the opinion of many of our best citizens, elect a more fit representative or a better officer.” That same year, Withers was a founding member of the city’s Young Men’s Democratic Club and served on the club’s committee to drafts bylaws and a constitution.
Withers identified with Gold Democrats as the party began to splinter in the 1890s and early 1900s. In local politics, the southern Democratic wing of Withers’ party pushed to make racial segregation and black disenfranchisement core issues of party campaigns. Even as Withers appears to have splintered off from that wing of the local party in 1904 and identified with the reformer, pro-business Democrats, his party wing still supported racial segregation and ideas about Black inferiority.
Withers ran for Congress in 1906 and 1908 in Democratic primaries for Missouri’s 5th Congressional District. Both campaigns were unsuccessful.
Confederate Veteran Organizations
Withers took on a leadership role in Missouri’s Confederate veteran organizations, which were closely linked with the state’s Democratic Party. In the 1890s, Withers was active in the Missouri Ex-Confederate Association, a group that formed in 1881 with the goals of honoring Confederate history, commemorating the “Lost Cause,” and fundraising for a Missouri veterans’ home. In 1891, Withers served on the reception committee for the group’s annual reunion, and from 1894-1895, he served on the association’s Executive Committee. In 1896, Withers attended a reunion of Mosby’s Rangers in Richmond, Virginia, during the Grand Reunion of the United Confederate Veterans.
As the Ex-Confederate Association transitioned into the Missouri Division of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) in the 1890s, Withers became of prominent leader within this organization. In 1905, Withers was selected to serve as the adjutant-general and chief of staff for the Western Brigade of the Missouri UCV. On April 25, 1906, he was appointed to lead the Western Brigade of the Missouri UCV during the division’s reunion that summer and was given the temporary rank of brigadier-general.
Withers was a regular speaker at UCV events in Missouri, where he glorified the “Lost Cause” and spoke about his belief in the inferiority of the Black Americans. On August 31, 1905, Withers was a principal speaker at the annual reunion of the Nevada Camp 662 of the United Confederate Veterans in Nevada, Missouri. The Weekly Post in Nevada, Missouri, reported that between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended this gathering and described Withers as “the orator of the day” who “made many happy hits in his talk to his old comrades.”
On October 3, 1905, Withers welcomed attendees to the state reunion of the Missouri UCV, which was held in Kansas City. A Kansas City Times account of his speech reported that Withers earned repeated cheers when he “declared that there are textbooks in the public school today that give only one side of the Civil war question.” The same newspaper account quoted Withers as saying, “There are no greater people on earth than those who live South of the Mason Dixon line. The only pure Anglo-Saxon blood in this country to-day is there.”
On October 1, 1908, Withers attended and was a principal speaker at the 12th annual State Encampment of the Missouri UCV in Nevada, Missouri. Withers discussed teaching the Civil War in American schools, his dedication to the cause of the South when he decided to join the Confederate Army, and his belief that Black Americans should be deported to save the white race. The Weekly Post published part of Withers’ speech, which included this excerpt:
When I was 14 [sic] I ran off from home to join the Boys in gray. I was enthused. I believed in their cause. I believed their cause was right. I have no regrets for what I did for my Southland. The south had the right to take the course it did. We had a right to secede. The question of slavery had to be solved and it had to be solved with the sword. If war had not come, I believe the South would have solved the problem, by taking the negro and shipping him out of the country. Today I am in favor of shipping him out of the borders of our domain. He can’t compete with the white race, and for that reason the negro is a criminal today. Slavery would have subsided on its own weight even if there hadn’t been a war. If the negro is not deported, he will some day break down our civilization.
Death and Legacy
Withers died of heart disease at his Kansas City home on December 25, 1908. His obituary in the Kansas City Times mentioned his service in the Confederate Army, his membership in the Masons, and his membership at the Kansas City County Club. In the Kansas City Star, Withers’ obituary carried the headline “He Served With Col. Mosby” and included an interview about Withers’ service as a Mosby’s Ranger with Judge J.B. Stone, Withers’s commander in the UCV. Notice of Withers’s death in the Confederate Veteran journal stated: “Another, a true, brave soldier, whose cause for which he battled sleeps at Appomattox, has crossed over the river and is now, let us pray, united again with Lee, Jackson, and all the valiant host who have gone before ‘beneath the shade of the trees’ to rest evermore.”