Tuesday, February 18, 2014

St. Joseph's Female College

Patee Female College

St. Joseph's Female College

Location: St. Joseph, Missouri, USA

Opened: 1875

Closed: 1881

The Patee House, which was built in 1858 as a hotel, now operates as a  National Historic Landmark and museum. The location has had a variety of usages over the years, but what we're interested in here is that it once housed two private women's colleges: The Patee Female College (1865-1868) and the St. Joseph Female College (1875-1881).

Here's the standard write-up on St. Joseph derived from that "free encyclopedia":
Affiliated with the Baptist Church, St. Joseph Female College was opened in 1875 by the English-born Rev. Elijah S. Dulin. The college was located for most of its operating years in the Patee House, a hotel and office building. It had previously housed the Patee Female College from 1865 to 1868.
Patee House today
Patee House has historically been most commonly associated with the founding of the Pony Express in 1860, and the death of outlaw Jesse James nearby in 1882.

The college moved out of Patee House in 1880 and constructed its own building at a cost of $100,000 on a hill near the city's center. According to The Baptist Encyclopedia, the board of trustees was composed of the state's leading men, with Rev. Dulin serving as president throughout the college's life.

It's a pattern we've seen before with 19th-century women's colleges: no signs of any actual women! The president is a dude. The Board of Trustees were dudes. And it was short-lived. Big surprise. We often see this too, as the dudes really don't have much motivation for keeping a women's college afloat through all the challenges.

Mary Alicia Owen
And yet women students often transcended the oppressive educational and religious limitations put upon these schools, and creatively reworked the educational opportunities to their own advantage. 

One of these students was Mary Alicia Owen (1850-1935), who attended Patee Female College for three years. Most unusual for a Missouri frontier girl of the time (even a white girl from a fairly prosperous family), Mary then proceeded on to Vassar College, which was one of the few women's colleges of the time that offered women a liberal arts education that was comparable to the ones offered by the men's schools. (Alas, Vassar is no longer a women's college as it began admitting men in 1969.)  

Mary was intent on remaining independent and never married. She later became a writer and renowned folklorist, with a particular interest in local Native American and African-American folklore and "voodoo" (as it was called at the time). She has been described as "the most famous American Woman Folklorist of her time."

While growing up, her family owned slaves. According to the State Historical Society of Missouri,  

Mary would recall how she loved to listen to the myths and stories told by the slaves.  As an adult, she wrote about one slave in the household, Mymee Whitehead, who was a conjurer.  Conjure, or Hoodoo as it is sometimes called, is the African American folk practice of using spells or creating potions to ask the spirit world for help.  Mary loved to watch “Aunt” Mymee prepare special potions.  She sometimes helped by getting needed ingredients from her grandmother’s kitchen.

Mary says more about Mymee here:

Mary Alicia Owen around 20
Aunt Mymee gave me the first glimpse of her secret business by importuning me to get from my grandmother some amaranth seeds. When I insisted on knowing what she wanted with them, she acknowledged she wished to make them into a little cake which would make any who ate it love the one who handed it to him. That sounded reasonable enough to anyone as fond of all sorts of sweeties as I was, so I procured the seeds, and had the cake made up.

Not long after I heard other servants of the family say that Mymee had surely conjured me, for I followed at her heels like a dog that had eaten shoebread.

What she learned from Mymee Whitehead and later from another area conjurer named King Alexander, who was part African American and part Cherokee, was recorded in her first book: Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers (1893).

Mary's life has been written up in a recent book by Greg Olson, Voodoo Priests, Noble Savages, and Ozark Gypsies: The Life of Folklorist Mary Alicia Owen (2012), so I'm not going to summarize it all here. Nor do I want to minimize the legitimate criticism that her work has received in recent years for its racist assumptions and connotations--though the same could be argued about all the other white anthropologists and archaeologists of the time, since these "disciplines" were essentially constructed around the exotic "other".

But as a woman who is little known today outside American folklore circles, it is still important to recognize her contributions and the role that women's schools played in sustaining her life.

Still, I wish we could hear Mymee Whitehead in her own voice, and that she could have had a school of her own....

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