The debt owed Randolph Lipscomb
The City of Columbus lost a true champion when Randolph Lipscomb died last week.
In the 1990s, downtown Columbus faced a staggering problem. A square mile of downtown Columbus rests on land Congress set aside as “16th section” land for the benefit of the schools.
In 1821, the citizens of Columbus set up a scheme of perpetual leases which funded the first public school in the state, Franklin Academy.
Over time, the money the leases produced was not enough to fund the schools. Because the lease payments were low, however, the lots came to have a capital value. Purchasers of the lots paid substantial money for them.
Eventually a scheme was worked out so that the capital value was taxed to provide money for the schools. The Columbus schools became some of the best-funded schools in the state.
In the 1990s, the Secretary of State, with the initial cooperation of the local school board, took the position that the leases were no longer valid. Invalidating the leases would have raised the rents, but that at the same time would have destroyed $30 million in capital value lease owners had spent buying their properties and would have cut that amount from the city tax base.
A group of concerned leaseholders, led by Hunter Gholson and Dewitt Hicks, asked me to represent the leaseholders in a suit against the Secretary of State. We had a strong legal position, because the U.S. Constitution says that the state cannot impair the obligation of contracts. That meant the provisions of the 1890 Mississippi constitution on which the Secretary of State relied could not be used to invalidate the renewed 1821 leases.
But we quickly encountered what is called the problem of the “common good.” The Secretary of State mounted a vociferous defense. I could not pursue the case without some assurance that my law firm would be paid for my work.
The work would benefit all leaseholders no matter who paid, so everyone wanted someone else to pay. Also, most individual leaseholders’ stakes were small. Even worse, we needed a clear example of a continuous lease to explain our case, and many records have been lost over time.
Randolph Lipscomb came to the rescue. His home in downtown Columbus was on a continuous lease. His grandfather had even served as school superintendent and written a history.
And, while he could not guarantee our firm’s payment, he hectored those who could, including the board of supervisors, until sufficient funds were provided to keep the effort alive. At the same time, he devoted hundreds of hours of his own legal work to advancing the cause over the 10 years that it took to get a final settlement in the leaseholders’ favor. Fortunately, the settlement allowed us to pay him for some of that effort.
My impression is that what he accomplished for the city was never sufficiently recognized. Quite frankly, many never believed that the leases would be invalidated, even though the Secretary of State at that point had an unbeaten track record on 16th Section issues in the state courts. Some may have thought that the hourly fee he earned was a sufficient reward for the 10 years of effort he had devoted to the cause, even though he had worked with no assurance that he would be paid at all.
My opinion is that there ought to be at least a plaque in downtown Columbus that honors what Randolph did. He saved the leaseholders $30 million they surely would have lost had he not stepped forward to spearhead the defense of the leases. The leaseholders, of course, include not only private parties but also the churches, Lowndes County, and the Mississippi University for Women.
Whether or not this is done, I hope the readers of this letter will pause a moment to honor his memory and remember that, when the city faced a crisis, Randolph Lipscomb came to its defense.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.