Myrtilla Miner – A tribute to a woman long before her time

Sunday, December 26, marks the start of Kwanzaa, an African American celebration with roots that date back to 1966 and the creativity and commitment of Dr. Maulana Karenga.  Reading and thinking about Kwanzaa takes me back to that turbulent era that has had a profound impact on my own life.  In that year I was a fledgling librarian at District of Columbia Teachers College, a crumbling school building on 13th and Harvard in Northwest Washington, DC.  Though the library what was known as the Wilson Building,  half of the campus was a few blocks away – the Miner Building was at 2565 Georgia Avenue NW, just across the street from the famed Howard University.  At that time, DCTC was part of the public school system of the District of Columbia, the training ground for a huge percentage of the district’s teachers and administrators.

This story has to do with Myrtilla Miner to whom the beautiful building on Georgia was dedicated in 1917.  It’s a story I’ve always wanted to know and now to share.

Myrtilla Miner was a white woman, born March 4, 1815, near Brookfield, New York.  Trained as an educator Miner taught at the Clover Street Seminary in Rochester, New York,  then at the Newton Female Institute, a Mississippi school where she was refused permission to conduct classes for African American girls.  That experience awakened Miner to the idea that she should open a school for young African American girls who would become teachers.  Encouraged by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and a contribution from a Quaker philanthropist Miner opened the Colored Girls School in Washington DC in 1851.  Though there were at the time some private schools for African American youth, this was the first school for African American girls that was dedicated to teacher education.

Within two months the enrollment grew from six to forty.  Despite the hostility of many in the community the school prospered.  Contributions from Quakers continued to arrive.  Harriet Beecher Stowe gave $1,000 of her Uncle Tom’s Cabin royalties to the Colored Girls School.  In a short time the school outgrew its quarters and moved in 1854 to a three-acre lot near the edge of the nation’s capital.  The first board of trustees included both Henry Ward Beecher and Johns Hopkins.

The curriculum in the early days focused on primary schooling with classes in domestic skills, hygiene and nature studies. With great stamina and persistence Miner pursued her vision of  rigorous academics and teacher education.  By 1858 six graduates of the Colored Girls School were teaching in schools of their own.

By that time Myrtilla Miner’s health was failing, though her dream and her commitment to building a teacher education institution for African American woman was thriving.  When the school was forced to close in 1860 Miner traveled to California with the hope of regaining her health.  Though she returned to DC, she was never able to return to the school when it reopened though she did serve on the first board of trustees.

Myrtilla Miner died in a carriage accident in 1864.  Her grave can be found today in Oak Hill Cemetery near Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown where she rests with some of the nation’s most distinguished leaders and their progeny.

Clearly, the story doesn’t end here. During the Civil War, on March 3, 1863, the U.S. Senate granted the Colored Girls School a charter as the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth.  In the early 1870’s the school was associated with Howard University, its near neighbor.  In 1879 it became part of the DC public school system; it was then re-named Miner Normal School   In 1924 Miner Normal School moved into a grand new  building designed by Leon E. Dessez and Snowden Ashford.  An act of Congress eventually accredited the institution as Miner Teachers’ College, a major source of African American teachers for the DC public schools until the mid-1950’s.

Because it was a part of the DC public schools Miner, the African American teacher education institution and its neighbor, Wilson Teachers College, preparer of white teachers, were merged to form the District of Columbia Teachers College in 1955..  The impact of the Brown decision, the merger of the two schools, and the influence of Myrtilla Miner shaped my five years at DCTC – five wonderful years of learning about worlds I had not known and would never have known except for my good fortune to be hired as a wet-behind-the-ears librarian with much to learn about the profession, African American history, and myself.

In the late 1960’s, as the education of African American youth gained national prominence,  Congress moved with all deliberate speed to create the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) which absorbed with a mighty flourish the District of Columbia Teachers College.  UDC, a totally urban institution, was awarded land grant status with a $7.24 endowment in place of the usual land grant.  I will never forget the desperate efforts of one African American librarian at DCTC, Walter Williams,  to stash and thus preserve the exquisite collection of African American literature that was no doubt dumped in the transition.  The original institutions, both Miner and Wilson, are no more, of course.

Still, the memories and the impact of Myrtilla Miner endure.  Thousands of teachers have studied their profession at Miner and DCTC.  Hundreds of thousands of DC youth have learned from those teachers.  Young people of color have been inspired by the high standards instilled by the indomitable Myrtilla Miner and the African American educators who followed in her footsteps.

The beautiful Colonial Revival building that was once Miner Normal School, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, stands proudly on Georgia Avenue Northwest as a present reminder of a white woman who recognized the possibilities, established standards, and found the means to reach high goals.  A white woman before her time who lived by the principles that inspire the celebration of Kwanzaa over 150 years later.  I am honored to have worked in her shadow those many years ago.

A search of MnKnows indicates that Minnesota libraries do include some important resources, included these:

  • Foner, Philip Sheldon, Contributions to Women’s Studies, Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, chapter on Myrtilla Miner.
  • Harold, Stanley, Antislavery, abolition and the Atlantic world, Louisiana State University Press
  • O’Connor, Ellen, American Negro, his history and literature.  Reprint of two works originally issued separately in 1885.  Includes memoir of Myrtilla Miner.

 

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One response to “Myrtilla Miner – A tribute to a woman long before her time

  1. Pingback: In response to Andrew Breitbart’s death, celebrating Shirley Sherrod

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