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article number 655
article date 04-11-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Advances in Education, Alabama, 1799 to 1941
by Alabama State Planning Commission

From the 1941 book, "Alabama" produced by the Alabama State Planning Commission.

* * *

IN the early days of French settlement in Alabama no provisions were made for education. Most of the colonists hoped to win fortunes quickly and return to France, and few, if any of them, brought wives or families. Parish priests may have held classes for children, but if they did, they left no records.

The first definite effort toward providing instruction for the colonists was made on March 26, 1742, when Governor Bienville asked the French king to organize a college in the Province of Louisiana. The petition was refused on the ground that the settlement was too small to warrant one.

There were no regular schools in Alabama during British and Spanish occupations, though Spanish priests gave some religious instruction to the Indians, and British authorities allotted 25 pounds a year for a schoolmaster. Priests probably taught children of prominent settlers, but surviving legal and church documents show that illiteracy was high.

The first Alabama school of which there is record was founded in 1799 at the Boat Yard on Lake Tensaw by John Pierce, a New Englander. Pierce, who operated a gin and traded in cotton, taught in a rude log cabin with puncheon floors and rough log benches.

Most of Pierce’s pupils were children of wealthy families: the McGillivrays, Taits, Weatherfords, Durants, Linders, and Mims. From the affluent patrons of this “blab” school, taught by word of mouth, Pierce made a tidy profit.

In 1811 the General Assembly of the Mississippi Territory chartered Washington Academy at St. Stephens and in 1812 Green Academy at Huntsville. Both schools were granted freedom from taxation and the privilege of raising money by lottery.

Eight years later when Alabama was admitted to the Union, Governor Bibb stressed education in his first message to the legislature, and the State made its first attempt to establish an educational system. Washington Academy, re-chartered as St. Stephens Academy, was granted $500 from the treasury.

Funds from the sale of the sixteenth section of land in each township were set aside for the support of schools, and two townships were reserved for “the use of a seminary, of learning.” During the next decade several additional acts were passed concerning the sale and rental of school land and the establishment of a system of control.

In addition to the section funds, the State’s part of the national surplus revenue, amounting to $670,000, was placed in the State Bank to the credit of the public school fund. When the bank failed in 1843, the funds were lost; many schools were abandoned and others remained open only through private subscriptions.

In 1848 Alabama petitioned Congress for the right to sell all public lands within its boundaries in order to support public education, because the sixteenth section plan had “utterly failed in its noble object.” In addition, Congress was asked to appropriate for public schools 100,000 acres of land set aside in 1841 for internal improvement. Both requests were granted.

But even funds provided from these sources failed to meet the operating expenses of public schools. In his report for 1858, Gabriel B. Duval, State superintendent of schools, said: “These funds have no existence; they are tangible neither to feeling nor to sight.”

Meanwhile, in 1852, the people of Mobile had founded their own system of education, directed by a board of commissioners. Income was derived from fines, land grants, and direct taxes. The board also raised $50,000 by lottery for support of the county schools.

After studying several leading schools in the North, the Mobile commissioners provided for primary, grammar, and high school grades. Boys and girls were segregated and a small tuition fee was charged, more to remove the “pauper” stigma from the schools than from necessity.

The first of these schools was Barton Academy, which still houses the seventh grade pupils. Built in 1835-36 for use of private and parochial schools, it was taken over by the city in November, 1852. In February, 1853, the enrollment was 854.

BARTON ACADEMY (1835-36), MOBILE. This building housed the first public school in Alabama.

Though the public school plan was opposed by wealthy planters, it was in operation throughout Mobile County by the following year. Opposition and competition of private academies continued, but by 1858 enrollment in Mobile proper and the county had reached 6,500.

The success of the Mobile system had great weight. Prominent Alabamians, among them William L. Yancey, Governor Chapman, and Governor Collier, began advocating a complete investigation and revision of the public educational structure.

In 1854 the legislature provided a centralized State system for which it appropriated $100,000. Each county was given the power to tax real estate and personal property for its common schools. Through several other acts passed in 1854 and 1856, State school funds were increased, tuition was lowered, and qualifications for teachers were raised.

Under William F. Perry, first State superintendent of schools (1855-7), annual teacher conventions were held in the counties.

The Alabama Educational Association was organized in 1856. This organization, together with the Alabama ’Educational Journal,’ first published in 1857, and the ’Southern Teacher,’ first published at Montgomery in 1859, did much to arouse interest in education and in higher standards for teachers.

Superintendent Duval’s report of 1858 placed school-age population at 180,000. Of this total, 100,000 were actually enrolled, though average attendance was only 42,000. There were 2,597 schools, with expenditures of $564,000, of which $293,000 was obtained from private sources.

While the public school system gained favor among the poor and middle class families, the planters and wealthy merchants held it in ridicule and contempt. They hired tutors for their sons and daughters or established private schools.

Between 1820 and 1840 more than 200 of these private academies were founded. Many of them were operated on a subscription basis. Teachers advertised for pupils, promising to teach “English, Latin, and Greek Languages grammatically.” Discipline was rigidly maintained.

The academies campaigned vigorously in the newspapers to prevent parents from sending their daughters out of the State “to some school with a big name where they learn but little save to dress fine, dip snuff, and think of sweethearts.”

Education of girls was given much attention by leading citizens who founded “female” academies out of their own funds. Towns, churches, and fraternal groups organized colleges and academies for girls.

The Tuscaloosa Female Association and the Selma Ladies’ Education Society were outstanding.

The Alabama Female Institute of Tuscaloosa expressed its purpose in the motto, “Our girls may be as cornerstones, polished after the similitude of a palace.”

The Centenary Institute at Summerfield claimed that “To educate woman is to refine the world.”

FIRST GRADE PUPILS, GEE’S BEND SCHOOL. Farm Security Administration: Photo by Post.

The gradual acceptance of public schools, even among the planters, is shown by a steady decline in the number of academies between 1840 and 1860. Many were forced to close during the War between the States.

After Reconstruction, with cotton wealth swept away, many of them were absorbed in colleges and the public high school system. They lingered longest in the Tennessee Valley and in the Black Belt, centers of planter population.

Until 1830, the education of Alabama Negroes was decided solely by the master. Slaves who showed special aptitude were taught to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. Some even attained positions of stewardship, the duties of which included keeping field accounts.

But as abolition sentiment gained headway in the North, with a subsequent inflow of Northern literature, these meager advantages were taken away by law. At the outbreak of war, there were 437,000 slaves and 2,690 free Negroes in Alabama, and the planters feared that learning would cause insurrection.

All printed matter was denied the slaves. However, Negroes continued to learn skilled trades, such as harness making, tanning, blacksmithing, carpentry, and masonry.

Very shortly after Alabama was admitted to the Union, the legislature passed an act for the incorporation of a State University. The Government had granted 46,000 acres for this purpose, and funds from sale of the lands had been placed in the State Bank.

Tuscaloosa was chosen as the site for the State University, and construction began in 1827. The University opened in 1831, with the Reverend Alva Woods as its first president.

Funds realized from tuition were negligible, and the patrons soon became dissatisfied with the management. Woods resigned in 1837 and was succeeded by the Reverend Basil Manly who began his first term with only 38 students enrolled.

Dr. Manly instituted a system of discipline that antagonized his students; an elaborate espionage system was maintained to report all infractions of the rules. Infuriated, the boys rebelled repeatedly, and on more than one occasion marched in protest from the chapel. The rebellions finally caused the spying to be abandoned.

When the State Bank failed in 1843, taking with it approximately $300,000 of the University’s funds as well as the public school fund, the University was severely crippled. Only by strictest economy, loans, and donations was it kept open. In 1848 a reluctant legislature fixed the State’s debt to the University at $250,000; but not until 1860 was the matter taken up again, when the legislature increased the amount to $300,000 with interest at 8 per cent.

During the late 1820’s, the churches began to further education. In 1830, the French Jesuits founded St. Joseph’s or Spring Hill College at Mobile, chartered by the legislature in 1836.

During 1830, also, the Methodists founded LaGrange College at LaGrange. Other Methodist institutions were the Athens Female College, founded in 1840, the Tuskegee Female College and Southern University, founded in 1856.

The Baptists established Judson College for Women at Marion in 1839, Howard College at Marion in 1841, and the Alabama Central Female College at Montgomery in 1857.

Most of these colleges employed excellent faculties, composed of graduates from the State University and Eastern colleges. Some maintained fairly up-to-date libraries. Spring Hill described its course as “essentially classic,” adding in the college prospectus for 1831, “Because of our many students from French-speaking Louisiana, the pupils will be required to speak the French and English languages each successive, alternate week.”

Meantime, a State-wide dearth of competent physicians turned attention to education in medicine. The Medical College of Alabama opened at Mobile in 1859 as a department of the University of Alabama. It had a State endowment of $50,000, and public subscription doubled that amount. During the first term 111 students enrolled, the number increasing to 120 in the second term. From 1865 to 1868 buildings of the school were used by the Federal Government as a school for Negroes.

Teachers’ training was promoted when the Normal Institute at Montgomery was established in 1854. A year later, a course for teachers was added to the curriculum at Barton Academy, Mobile.

WESLEYAN HALL, STATE TEACHERS’ COLLEGE, FLORENCE. Photo by Work Projects Administration.

At the outbreak of the War between the States, Alabama’s education was making slow, but steady progress. Many educational societies were in existence and 395 libraries were operating. There were 62,000 pupils enrolled in 1,900 public schools, and 11,000 students in the 206 academies and private schools. The total enrollment of the 17 colleges was over 2,000.

Secession brought a virtual halt to all educational activities. Students and teachers alike deserted the academies and colleges to join the Confederate Army.

Then, near the close of the war, invading Union troops burned the State University and other colleges. Some school buildings were used as barracks for troops and as refuges for Negroes who straggled off the plantations to be housed and fed by the Government.

In education, as in every other field, the Reconstruction years between 1865 and 1874 were difficult. Added to the 98,000 white children of school age were thousands of freed slave children, none of whom had ever seen a textbook.

In 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau began functioning under General Wager Swayne, a fair-minded man who tried diligently to give both white and black children educational advantages. In 1867 there were 157 Negro schools with 150 teachers, of whom 126 were white and 24 Negro. But none of the latter had pedagogical training, and some had not even attended school.

Matters became worse in 1869 when the Bureau broke down under the pressure of carpetbaggers and scalawags. Serious crop failures from 1865 to 1868 helped turn the public mind away from education.

By 1870 only 27 of the Negro schools remained, with ill-equipped teachers and 2,100 pupils compared with the 9,800 pupils of 1867.

The status of white education was in turmoil. Thousands kept their children at home, and the inability to read or write was common among those who grew up after the surrender. Schools operated only when children were not needed in the fields.

Schools in towns and cities were governed by local boards under the supervision of the State superintendent. But only children of the poor attended the public schools, which were usually located in dilapidated shacks in out-of-the-way places.

Students from the private schools threw mud and rocks at the public school children and yelled “schoolbutter” at them.

THE THREE R’S ARE TAUGHT IN A COUNTRY CHURCH. Photo by Farm Security Administration: Rothstein.

Between 1880 and 1900 more than 100 private and denominational high schools, academies, seminaries, and colleges were chartered. Anyone could open a private school, give it a name, plan its course of study, and determine the tuition and regulations.

Private schools, popular in the Tennessee Valley and the Black Belt, were not standardized and were chartered by the legislature on request. They were permitted to grant diplomas and degrees; some normal colleges even granted masters’ and doctors’ degrees.

Efforts to reorganize higher learning were led by the churches, which concentrated on rural communities and centers of Negro population. One of the Baptist schools was the Alabama Baptist Colored Normal and Theological School, which survives today as the coeducational Selma University.

Both Southern Baptists and Methodists established several schools for needy white children in rural communities. Led by their example, the Northern Methodists founded Snead Seminary at Boaz in 1899, the Universalists opened the Southern Industrial Institute at Camp Hill, 1898, and the Congregationalists founded Thorsby Institute at Thorsby in 1901.

One of the educational problems of the post-Reconstruction period was incompetent teachers. Few of them had better than a common grades education and, indeed, some attempted to teach pupils who were by far their intellectual superiors.

With this in mind, the State took action to better conditions through teacher training. A normal school for white teachers was established at Florence in 1872 and similar institutions for Negroes were opened at Marion in 1874 and at Huntsville in 1875. In the 1880’s schools for white teachers were founded at Troy, Livingston, and Jacksonville.

Attempts at providing adequate education for the Negro in Alabama started in 1881 with the founding of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Lewis Adams, a former slave, was largely responsible for gaining the financial support of Northern and Southern whites. On July 4, 1881, Dr. Booker T. Washington became president, opening classes with 30 students housed in a dilapidated frame building. From that humble beginning the present Institute of 110 buildings and an enrollment of 1,700 has emerged.

CHAPEL, TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE, Statue of Booker T. Washington in Foreground. Photo by Tuskegee Institute.

Permanent steps toward providing industrial education for whites were taken in 1872 when the State Agricultural and Mechanical College was established at Auburn. Despite bitter criticism by those who favored purely classical instruction, the college employed professors of engineering and agriculture, and offered degrees in both courses.

During the 1880’s, the State donated $12,500 for a department of mechanic arts at the college; this department has developed into a school of engineering. In 1887 an experiment station was added.

In 1899 the name of the college was changed by legislative act to Alabama Polytechnic Institute, popularly called Auburn. It is the oldest co-educational institution in Alabama; women were admitted to the institution in 1892.

Julia S. Tutwiler, president of Livingston Normal School, was the leader of the movement to provide technical training for girls and, as a result of her efforts, the Girls’ Industrial School, now Alabama College, was opened at Montevallo in 1895.

By that year, public schooling in Alabama was firmly established. The school fund was increased in 1898 to more than $1 n, when the legislature added $100,000 in direct appropriations and levied a one-mill tax for the sole use of the public schools.

Upon recommendation of State Superintendent John W. Abercrombie, a textbook commission was created in 1901, and the minimum free school term was fixed at five months. If no public funds were available for a five-months term, local citizens were required to supplement them or be denied a school. A State board of examiners was authorized to certify teachers.

Between 1889 and 1895 nine district agricultural schools were established for whites, and a branch agricultural experiment station was established for Negroes attending Tuskegee Institute and Montgomery Normal School. Several private and denominational schools for Negroes gave instruction in trades.


A report by the State Department of Education in 1900 showed that illiteracy among Negroes of ten years of age or more was reduced from 81 per cent in 1880 to 57 per cent. Illiteracy in both races declined between 1880 and 1900 from 51 per cent to 34 per cent.

Most of the important colleges of the ante bellum period had been reopened by 1895. In addition the Catholic Church founded the junior St. Bernard College at Cullman.

Leading denominational schools at the turn of the century were Southern University and Athens College (Methodist), Judson and Howard Colleges (Baptist), and Spring Hill College (Catholic). All these institutes still hold important places in the State’s educational system. In 1918 Southern University became Birmingham-Southern College.

In 1867, the University of Alabama began rebuilding some of the structures destroyed during the war and classes reopened in 1869. Even then, however, the future of the college was uncertain, for it was controlled by men in favor with the Federal authorities, and in reprisal many Alabamians refused to support it.

But when the State regained control of its affairs after Reconstruction, the University regained its popularity. Its economic status was greatly strengthened in 1884 when Congress made a donation of 46,000 acres of land in restitution for the buildings and equipment destroyed during the war. Several legislative acts have since contributed to operating expenses, and an endowment fund resulting from the lease of coal lands is available for maintenance. New buildings, fully equipped, have been erected with funds obtained by popular subscription.


Through the efforts of Julia Tutwiler, the trustees opened courses to women in 1893, and by 1898 girls were admitted to all classes and given the same privileges as the male students. The University now (1941) includes schools of arts and sciences, law, medicine, education, engineering, commerce and business, aeronautics, chemistry, metallurgy, and ceramics, home economics, and mines.

In 1907, high schools were established in each county, except in those already possessing normal or agricultural schools. Counties were required to construct buildings worth at least $5,000 each, and to deed the building, equipment, and five acres of land to the State.

Later in the same year the legislature appropriated $1,000 to each county school out, of a fund derived from the sale of fertilizer tags. By 1912, this legislation had resulted in more than 2,600 communities improving their school buildings and equipment.

With the Smith-Hughes act in 1917, vocational courses were added to most of the public schools. A division of vocational education was added to the State Department of Education with three branches—agriculture, trades and industries, and home economics—each under a trained supervisor. Secondary schools also added vocational training to their courses of study.

Special day and night schools are now conducted for boys, girls, and adults unable to attend day school. Evening classes are held for mill women and foremen in industrial plants, and a two-weeks’ conference for foremen is conducted during the summer session of the University of Alabama.

In 1919, Alabama sought a full report on its educational structure. A commission, composed of educators from the U. S. Office of Education and other experts made a thorough survey and gave its report to a State education commission, which in turn made the findings public.

The commission reported that the qualifications of Alabama teachers were far below those of many other States. Their salaries averaged only $27.50 per month on a twelve-month basis. Illiteracy also was high. One out of every 12 white persons between the ages of 10 and 20 could not read or write, and the same held true for one out of every four Negroes.

Educational advantages varied in different parts of the State. The school term in the Black Belt was found to be almost twice as long as it was in the hill counties; illiteracy was 300 per cent greater in mountainous Jackson County than in Black Belt Sumter.

From 1920 to 1930 the rate of illiteracy continued high despite improved standards. The highest percentage of illiteracy was found in the rural sections, where 12 per cent of children of school age were unable to read or write, as compared with 2.7 per cent in cities of 25,000 population and over.


At the height of the depression in 1932, the legislature reduced appropriations for colleges by 30 per cent and for common schools by 10 per cent. As a result, there were drastic reductions in salaries and retrenchment of all kinds.

Schools throughout the State would have closed if the teachers had not taught for months and in some cases for more than a year for very little or no pay. In some rural sections teachers, boarded free by the patrons, received as little as $10 a month.

Since the inauguration of Federal relief in 1933, hundreds of unemployed teachers have been given work in the adult, parent, and workers’ education programs of the Work Projects Administration, and its predecessors. By 1938 the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic had been taught to 24,000 adults. Federal aid had also provided the State with new school buildings or enabled it to make needed repairs on old structures.

The growing interest in Negro education is shown by such excellent institutions as Tuskegee, Selma University, State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute at Normal, State Teachers College at Montgomery, Stillman Institute at Tuscaloosa, and Talladega College.

Though the ideal of “an education for every child, white and Negro” has not yet been realized, primary and secondary Negro education is improving. There are several hundred schools in the State aided by the Rosenwald Fund.

During the past quarter century, the total college enrollment in Alabama has more than doubled. Standards have been raised, courses of study liberalized and plants enlarged. The total enrollment in public schools for 1939 was 691,000. High school students numbered 180,000, and high school enrollment is increasing annually.

Consolidation of rural schools is being facilitated by the operation of 2,800 busses, which transport 209,000 children. In 1940, the State department of education reported net revenue receipts of about $20 million, used for the operation of public school plants valued at $60 million.

MURPHY HIGH SCHOOL, MOBILE. Photo by Overbey Studio.
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