Kirby, Robert Harper (1861–1928)

By: Diane E. Spencer

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: June 18, 2020

Robert Harper Kirby, prohibitionist and philanthropist, was born on March 20, 1861, near Hempstead, Texas, the son of Jared Ellison and Helen Marr (Swearingen) Kirby. He was educated at Texas Military Institute (1876–79), Eastman's Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York (1879), Vanderbilt University (1881–83), and the University of Texas (1883). On August 28, 1883, he married Annie E. McAshan. He had many business interests, including farming, cattle, real estate, timber, and oil. Kirby was a devoted Methodist, and like many members of the denomination, he was very involved in the prohibition movement. He served as president of the Anti-Saloon League of Texas and as chairman of the statewide campaign for prohibition in 1919. During that campaign he traveled throughout the state and spent over $100,000 of his own money for the cause. In 1928 he was chairman of an organization of Texas Democrats working to unite the Democratic party in backing a dry candidate for president.

He was a noted philanthropist who gave an estimated $2 million to charitable, religious, and educational organizations, particularly to the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University. The largest of his many donations to SMU was a grant of $100,000 to construct a new building, Harper and Annie Kirby Hall, for the theological school. He also donated $5,000 at the time of the university's establishment, $10,000 for a loan fund, $1,000 for a dormitory, and approximately 800 acres of land between Houston and Galveston. Kirby served on the board of directors for the American Legion endowment fund and was chairman of the Men and Religion Forward Movement. He died on April 16, 1928.

Austin Statesman, April 17, 1928. Dallas Morning News, April 17, 1928. Lewis L. Gould, Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). Jeanne Bozzell McCarty, The Struggle for Sobriety: Protestants and Prohibition in Texas, 1919–1935 (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1980). Mary M. H. Thomas, Southern Methodist University: Founding and Early Years (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1974).

  • Education
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Diane E. Spencer, “Kirby, Robert Harper,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 18, 2020