Monday, October 31, 2011

Mary Allen Seminary

Administration Building, Mary Allen Seminary

Mary Allen Seminary

Location: Crockett, Texas, USA

Opened: January 15, 1886

Closed: 1933

The Mary Allen Seminary, a boarding school for African-American girls, went through two earlier permutations. The school was founded as the Crocker Presbyterian Church Colored Sabbath School (1871-1875) and then became the Moffatt Parochial School (1975-1885). The Reverend Samuel Fisher Tenney was apparently active in the founding of both schools.

In 1886 the Board of Missions for Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church began planning for the establishment of a black girls' school in Texas. Reverend Tenney saw an advertisement referring to the project and immediately responded. The secretary to the Board of Missions for Freedmen, the Reverend Richard Allen, was soon invited to Crockett. Prominent businessmen joined Reverend Tenney in receiving him. After a statewide survey, Crocket was chosen as the school's location--partly because of the county's large African-American population and partly because of the Black parochial school that Reverend Tenney had previously founded. The community offered a grant of ten acres on a hilltop plot north of the city.

Reverend Allen's wife, Mary Esther, actively promoted "our Texas boarding school for colored girls" and took on a key organizational fundraising role through the Women's Executive Committee of the Board of Missions for Freedmen. When Mrs. Allen died suddenly, the board agreed that the official name of the school should be Mary Allen Seminary.

Reverend J. B. Smith was commissioned to take charge of the new seminary, which opened on January 15, 1886. (Yes, Reverend Smith was a white male.) Mary Allen Hall, a four-story brick structure with basement, was completed on October 1, 1887, at a cost of $20,000, including furnishings. The school began as a day and boarding school offering courses at the primary, elementary, high school, and teacher-training levels for girls only. The seminary published its first catalogue that same year. 

Two years after opening, the school had an official June dedication. Here's one (apparently anonymous) description from an out-of-town visitor to that event. Be forewarned, however, that many of the observations are quite patronizing and racist:

A trip to Texas in the latter half of June is no pleasure trip so far as the comfort of travel is concerned ; but Mary Allen Seminary was to be dedicated on the 19th of the month, and we felt it important to be there. The trip, however, in spite of the hot weather and rough southern railroads, was not without interest and pleasure. It was interesting to mark the differently advanced state of the growing crops and fruits as we proceeded southward. In Ohio and Illinois the young corn was only a foot high, and the wheat just heading ; in southern Missouri, the next morning, we saw the corn waist high and the wheat in full head. That afternoon in Arkansas we found the corn in the tassel, and the wheat ready for the sickle ; and in Texas the next day we saw that the wheat had been harvested, and we had ears of the new, fresh corn on the dinner table, together with all the vegetables, which we do not have in the North till July and August. It looked strange to northern eyes to see peach and plum trees hanging full of ripe, luscious fruit in June.  

Mary Allen Seminary is our new boarding-school for colored girls, located at Crockett, Houston county, Texas, on the main line of railroads leading from St. Louis to Galveston. The building stands on a ten-acre lot presented by the citizens of Crockett, and is indeed "beautiful for situation," overlooking the village, a little less than a mile away, and the entire surrounding country. It is said to be the highest point in the county. Whether this be so or not, it is certainly true that from the tower of the seminary you may have an uninterrupted view over the country for twelve miles in every direction. The building has four stories with wide, airy halls, and bright, cheerful dormitories large enough to accommodate comfortably four girls each. The seminary was put up and furnished almost entirely by contributions from ladies' societies and Sabbath-schools, and is supported principally from the same sources, not a dollar of the general funds of the Board having been expended in its erection or support. 

Though only two years old, we found the seminary in a most prosperous condition, having enrolled during the term 152 pupils, 102 of whom were boarders. Arriving before the term closed, we had the privilege of witnessing the examination of all the classes, occupying two entire days. This was as thorough and as creditable on the part of the pupils as any examinations we have attended in similar white schools North or South. When it is remembered that most of these girls came directly from the cotton fields, their improvement in every department of study is simply marvelous. Faithful and thorough work has been done by the teachers, and good results have followed. We were specially interested in the work done in the industrial department, where all manner of sewing is taught and instruction given in the culinary arts. We saw girls with neat dresses on, which they themselves had cut, fitted and made, who at the beginning of the year did not know how to wear a thimble, and also neat specimens of hemming, stitching, darning and knitting, of which they knew nothing when they entered the seminary. We saw and tasted delicious loaves of bread, rolls, pies and cakes made and baked by girls who a year ago knew only how to make and bake the  "corn dodger" and "hoe-cake," and that only in a rough manner. The housekeeping in the institution is a model of neatness from cellar to garret. 

But most of all we were impressed with the religious influence pervading the seminary. On each morning the whole school is divided into four Bible classes, and an hour spent in close and systematic study of the Bible. On every Sabbath morning from 9 to 10 o'clock the "Shorter Catechism" is studied in the same way. With such studies and the faithful instruction of consecrated teachers who feel a tender interest in the girls, it is not at all strange that a deep religious interest pervaded the school. It is just what may be expected anywhere under similar circumstances, and I was prepared to hear that a number of the girls had professed Christ and joined the church during the year. Among them were four Roman Catholic girls from Louisiana, whose conversion was very marked, as their Christian lives since evince. 

The dedicatory services took place on the afternoon of June 19. The chapel was too small to accommodate all who were expected to attend, and so an arbor was erected adjoining the chapel, under which 800 or 1000 colored people were seated by 3 o'clock in the afternoon. On the platform were assembled a number of the best white citizens of the place, who expressed a deep interest in our work. Above the platform and under the arbor, hanging among the holly branches, was a large picture of Mrs. Allen, presented to the seminary by the ladies of East Liberty Church, Pittsburgh, Pa. 

The exercises were commenced by a hymn sung by the girls, and beautifully sung it was. Rev. J. B. Smith, president of the seminary, then gave a short history of the school—its beginning two years ago last January with one scholar in an old hotel in the village, its rapid growth, the hard work they had in the old hotel, crowded with girls and no conveniences for their comfort, then of the gratitude they felt to the Christian women and Sabbath-schools of the North, when they were permitted to enter their new building. Then followed a solemn and touching prayer of dedication by Rev. Mr. Tenny, the pastor of the Southern Presbyterian Church, at Crockett, a warm friend of the seminary and of our work among the freedmen. A beautiful hymn of dedication was then sung by the girls, led by Miss Buttes, the teacher of music, and we wish all the women in our church could have heard that singing. We were then permitted to address the people, which we did with much pleasure and in the best manner of which we were capable, and were followed by an address from Colonel Nunn, a prominent lawyer of the town and once an officer in the Confederate army. The closing address was made by Rev. Mr. Tenny, and made a good impression on the audience, as we felt that every word came from a warm Christian heart. A chorus sung by the girl as only colored girls can sing, closed the afternoon service. 

There was another dedication of the seminary previous to this of a unique but very touching character. Before the building was entirely finished a number of the girls asked permission of President Smith to go into one of the rooms and hold a little prayer-meeting. Permission being given, they went in and spent an hour in singing their weird plantation hymns and in prayer and thanksgiving to God, thanking him for their friends in the North who had built this house for them, and praying for his blessing on it When we heard this we felt there was no other dedication needed : these poor girls in the gratitude of their hearts had been before us, and we are sure that God had heard their prayers and accepted their humble thanksgivings; for,       

"Richer by far was their hearts' adoration, And dearer to God are the prayers of the poor." 

The day's exercises were closed with an entertainment given by the girls in the evening at the chapel, consisting of essays, declamations, dialogues and singing. Some of the essays read would have done credit to the girls of any seminary in the land. Among the songs were a number of their plantation hymns, which were very beautiful and sung most impressively.

The house dedicated is only the main building; the wing in the original plan has not yet been built, but is very much needed. Many pupils, the president informed us, will have to be turned away next term for the want of it Oh that God would inspire the heart of some Christian lady or ladies to build this needed addition to the seminary ! 

We congratulate the women and the Sabbath-school scholars of our church, and the individual friends of our work, on the  founding of this seminary for the daughters of the poor colored people of the South. The good which it has accomplished and will accomplish cannot be estimated. It is a light in a dark land among a benighted people. The influence of it will be felt not only in time but in eternity. 

 A permanent scholarship fund to aid poor and worthy girls is very much needed, and benevolent persons who have even small sums which they wish to invest for permanent good have a most excellent opportunity for doing so in Mary Allen Seminary. A single scholarship of $45 supports a girl for the entire school year. We trust those who have taken these scholarships will renew them for the next year, so that the girls who have been placed upon them may continue their course of study. If persons knew what struggles many of these girls have gone through and what sacrifices they have made in order to reach the seminary, many touching instances of which we could give, they would willingly extend aid to them. We do not know a better work that Sabbath- schools or Sabbath-school classes or individual Christians could do for the Master and his lowly poor than to take up one of these girls and help her through her seminary course, and send her forth as a teacher among her people. We are thoroughly convinced that these boarding-schools for colored girls are doing some of the most efficient work that is being done under the Board of Missions for Freedmen. A Scotia or Mary Allen Seminary in every southern state would go far toward solving the Negro problem. 

President Smith and his devoted wife, with their excellent corps of teachers, in their arduous and self-denying work at Mary Allen Seminary deserve and should have the prayers and sympathy of the whole church. And is it not time for a " Biddle " in Texas as well as a " Scotia " ? a " ,"— whose name shall we give it?—as well as a " Mary Allen"? A commonwealth needs education for both sexes.

At some point, the citizens of Crockett donated an additional twelve acres to the original campus. In 1889, the school acquired 300 acres of land adjacent to the campus, and Grace McMillan Hall was completed. These advances were made possible by gifts from northern donors. In 1890 the school listed eight teachers in addition to Reverend and Mrs. Smith and 211 students. Smith resigned in 1910.

As the Texas State Historical Association observes,
The years 1910 to 1924 were years of discouragement, fire, and difficulty for Mary Allen Seminary. However, in 1924 the board commissioned Rev. Burt Randall Smith, the first black administrator, to revitalize the program of the institution. He developed an all-black faculty, upgraded the library and science laboratory, repaired the plant, and enriched the curriculum; in 1925–26 the high school department was accredited by the State Department of Education. In 1927 the first junior-college class graduated. The lower grades were gradually eliminated, and in 1932 the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools certified the junior college. In 1933 the school became coeducational and changed its name to Mary Allen Junior College.

After many other struggles over the years, the college finally closed its doors for good in September 1972.

I wish I could locate the remembrances of students from the seminary years, but if they exist, they're probably in the form of old diaries or letters gathering dust in someone's attic. So you'll just have to enjoy this old photo of Mary Allen students in physics class.  
Mary Allen Seminary students in physics class (1927)

Photos: Early 20th century photo of the Administration Building, Mary Allen Seminary; physics class at Mary Allen around 1927. Today, the former campus is a veritable ghost town.

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