Monday, March 21, 2011

Mount Hermon Female Seminary

Sara Dickey Hall
Mount Hermon Female Seminary

Location: Clinton, Mississippi, USA

Founded: 1875

Closed: 1924, by the American Missionary Association, which had its own college in Tougaloo, Mississippi

Mount Hermon Female Seminary was a historically black institution of higher education for women. Founded in 1875 by Sarah Ann Dickey, the school was patterned after Dickey's alma mater, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Sarah Ann Dickey was quite a brave and fascinating woman. Her life's story demonstrates how violent the struggle for educational rights and opportunities for women and African-Americans really was, and how leaders in the struggle, such as Charles Caldwell, actually lost their lives. Notice also how freedmen, despite their povery, invested what little they had in creating educational opportunties for their daughters.

The following account is derived from the American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press, Inc.:

Dickey, Sarah Ann (25 Apr. 1838-23 Jan. 1904), teacher of freedwomen, was born near Dayton, Ohio, the daughter of Isaac Dickey and his wife, whose maiden name was Tryon. Following her mother's death in 1846, Sarah Dickey was placed with farming relatives who neglected their promise to educate her. At age sixteen, having averaged ten to fifteen days of schooling per year, she remained illiterate. It was with understandable shock and some amusement that her family received her announcement that she wanted to become a teacher. Undeterred, Dickey struck a bargain with a neighboring family to work in exchange for board and the long-coveted opportunity to attend school. After three years, to her family's astonishment, she earned a teaching certificate, and over the next seven years she taught in country schools near Dayton.

Driven inward by her early deprivations, Dickey relied on promptings from visions, dreams, and a voice she viewed as God's. In 1858 she joined the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, later the Evangelical United Brethren. She applied for missionary work in Africa but was denied. In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation prompted the American Missionary Association (AMA) to establish a freedmen's school in Vicksburg, Mississippi. They selected Dickey and two other teachers to open it. Conditions in the wartorn city were shocking; one of Dickey's fellow teachers died of typhoid fever. Following Appomattox, the AMA was forced to abandon the school, calling her north again.

Feeling the need for more education, Dickey set her sights on Mount Holyoke Seminary. Borrowing money from her church, she set out for Massachusetts, arriving in South Hadley with thirty-four cents in her pocket and conspicuously missing her trunk, which she had been forced to leave as collateral for the last leg of her trip. Dickey managed to secure a place and, through Mary Lyon's famous domestic work system, earned her way through the four-year course, graduating in 1869. Deeply affected by her experience, and consulting as always her guiding voice, Dickey felt charged with a divine mission: to establish a Mount Holyoke for freedwomen. Dickey began teaching in a freedman's school in Raymond, Mississippi, in January 1870. A year later she moved on to a newly opened school in nearby Clinton, which a local politician declared an unmitigated outrage against Clinton's white citizens. Harassed daily by whites and threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, Dickey was offered lodging by Senator Charles Caldwell, one of the most powerful black leaders in the state. Warning shots fired over her head during class and open threats in the street prompted her response that she had come south to do God's work and would be removed only by death.

While teaching at the free school, Dickey laid the foundation for her seminary, tirelessly soliciting funds and recruiting a biracial board of trustees headed by Caldwell. She secured a charter in 1873 and the following year procured a suitable building on 160 acres of land. Much of the money came from freedmen, despite their destitution. She was making final preparations when Clinton exploded in race riots on 4 September 1875, forcing a delay. For Dickey, the chaos only underscored the need for her school. On 4 October 1875 the Mount Hermon Female Seminary, a nonsectarian school for young black women, opened its doors. Two months later Caldwell was killed by a white mob.

Dickey modeled Mount Hermon as closely as possible after Mount Holyoke. She instituted a domestic work system, setting exacting standards for cleanliness, punctuality, and industriousness. In addition to the elementary course, Dickey offered a three-year, and later four-year, normal course, featuring yearly English and Bible courses, liberal science offerings, music, and education theory. The catalog promised that students completing the course would have no trouble obtaining teacher's certification, and this proved true. In fact, Mount Hermon students were so well prepared that many obtained certification without completing the course. Dickey's dream for a Mount Holyoke for freedwomen, however, rested on the advanced course, which included Latin, philosophy, further science, English, and religious studies. Only one student graduated the course, yet Dickey continued to offer it until her death, believing that nothing less would do her students justice. Economic and social turmoil and the strong demand for Mount Hermon teachers drew most students away before entering this level.

Though it fell short in that aspect, Mount Hermon exerted tremendous influence in the community. When Clinton closed its free school, Dickey admitted the local children as day students. The Mount Hermon commencement was a source of pride and a big social event, the students acquitting themselves so well that it inspired the grudging respect of many in the white community. Many displaced children found a home at Mount Hermon, and Dickey helped families as she could, offering financial advice and accompanying workers to the cotton markets to ensure fair compensation. In the mid-1890s she bought 120 acres of land and offered tracts on credit to freedmen to build homes. They promptly built the Holy Ghost Baptist Church on the first lot of "Dickeyville," as the neighborhood was called. This was one of the thirty-eight churches burned in Mississippi in 1964. Over the decades the white community began to perceive the value of her work. By 1889 Dickey could write that all of the prejudice against her had been erased.

In 1896 Dickey was ordained a minister of the United Brethren in Christ. However, despite years of tireless solicitation and creative financial endeavors, she was unable to secure permanent funding for her school. Following her death in Clinton at age sixty-five, the school was entrusted to the AMA, whose interests lay in its nearby Tougaloo University. The school fell into neglect and was closed in 1924. Only the brass bell and the gravesite, dedicated and maintained by the Mississippi State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, remain of Mount Hermon. A memorial building at Tougaloo and a laboratory at Mount Holyoke bear Sarah Dickey's name.

As amazing as Sarah Dickey was, I wish I could include something here about what life was like at the school, or how the students felt about the education they received there. But like so much of women's history--especially African-American women's history--those voices have apparently been lost.

Photo: Sara (sic?) Dickey Hall (formerly, Sara Dickey Memorial Hospital), Tougaloo College, Tourgaloo, Mississippi

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