Frederick Douglass dismissed Myrtilla’s plan to open a school for African American girls in the slaveholding South as “reckless, almost to the point of madness.” But Myrtilla Miner, the daughter of poor white farmers in Madison County, New York, was relentless. Fueled by an unyielding feminist conviction, and against a tide of hostility, on December 3, 1851, the fiery educator and abolitionist opened the School for Colored Girls—the only school in Washington, DC, dedicated to training African American students to be teachers. Although often in poor health, Myrtilla was a fierce advocate for her school, fending off numerous attacks, including stonings, arson, and physical threats, and discouraging local “rowdies” by brandishing her revolver with open displays of target practice. The school would gradually gain national fame and stimulate a nationwide debate on the education of black people. Myrtilla’s School for Colored Girls would slowly flourish through the years, and its mission exists even today through the University of the District of Columbia. This Noble Woman is the first modern biography of Myrtilla Miner for young adults, and includes historic photos, source notes, a bibliography, and a list of resources for further exploration.
About the Author
Michael Greenburg, a practicing attorney and former editor of the Pepperdine Law Review, is the author of Peaches and Daddy, The Mad Bomber of New York, and The Court-Martial of Paul Revere.
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A COUNTRY GIRL
At times the pain was more than she could bear. A frail and sickly child, Myrtilla Miner worked on her father's farm in North Brookfield, New York, harvesting the hops that were so important to her family's livelihood and the economy of the community where they lived. The cone-shaped crop, which was picked each autumn, provided the flavoring for beer and other beverages and required long periods of manual labor for its harvest.
Myrtilla's pain resulted not just from hard work under harsh conditions but also from grave health problems. She had been born with a spinal infection that required constant drainage and bandaging, and she suffered from tuberculosis, a lung infection that causes severe coughing and sometimes death. These conditions would ail her for much of her life. As a child her features remained animated despite her ill health, but her brown eyes often appeared sunken and her skin ghostly pale. She was thin and fragile for most of her childhood, and at times her family doubted that she would survive. An inner strength, however, lifted her and helped her to endure. Here, in the hills of Madison County, Myrtilla Miner did survive and learned to dream of a better life.
She was born on March 4, 1815, to Seth and Eleanor Miner and was, according to the family Bible, the fifth of twelve children. Her friends and family members called her Myrtle. Her parents were hardworking and devoutly religious settlers of a region described as "little more than an unbroken wilderness." They had migrated to New York from Connecticut and, like other New England pioneers, settled in the southeastern region of the county originally called the Nineteenth Township. Seth had chosen a parcel of land on the east side of a trail later known as Mill Hill Road for the site of his cottage.
By the time Myrtilla was born, the village of North Brookfield had been established and the community had begun to flourish. Seth helped found the First Day Baptist Church in Brookfield and also served as a lieutenant in the Madison County militia. In North Brookfield, wrote Ellen O'Connor, "the family was subjected to all the privations incident to the lot of early settlers. They grew up strong men and women, with little education from schools, but with habits of industry and economy, which were transmitted to their children, accompanied by principles of high moral integrity and deep religious reverence."
Myrtilla described her home in North Brookfield as a "curiously poetic part of the earth." The family cottage was situated on a rising bluff of Mill Hill "that we might take a copious view of the scenery and from that know whether it was best to laugh or cry, make poetry or prose." North Brookfield, she wrote, was "a land of hills and vales, greatly diversified and subject to extreme poverty and, consequently, very romantic."
The town was inhabited by at least one African American family — that of a prominent businessman named Laban Olby — but full racial integration was still years away. The enslavement of African Americans was, in fact, prevalent in both the North and South sections of the United States at the time. Olby was free and owned a popular local tavern and hotel. There is no evidence that he experienced the kind of violent racial discrimination that many black people suffered throughout the country. Myrtilla sadly pointed out, however, that North Brookfield was sometimes called "Nigger City" "on account of its peculiar locality and the queeritiveness of its inhabitants."
Myrtilla's father was a simple man who respected the traditional values of hard work and frugal living. He encouraged his children to learn the local trades or follow in the family business of farming. Girls, of course, were expected to become homemakers and to learn about taking care of families. Education beyond the mere basics was not practical with such a large family, and it was all but discouraged by Seth Miner. He was, according to Ellen O'Connor, "a man of uncommon natural ability, but, from his narrow training, regarded mental culture, beyond a certain limit, as superfluous and unnecessary." But Myrtilla was an intelligent child and, despite — or perhaps because of — her frail health, yearned for something more than what her hands could craft. She developed a free spirit and a passion to improve herself through education. "You wonder," wrote young Myrtilla of her home, "what intellectual fruit such a place could afford."
As a child, she was fascinated with the beauty of nature and made careful study of the physical world around her. "There is nothing upon which the eye of a Christian rests with more exquisite delight than natural scenery," she later wrote. Her family kept a small collection of books at home, and she read all that she could. She also borrowed books from friends and relatives, and though she often suffered with back pain, she worked long hours in the hops farms of Brookfield during harvest season to earn money for the purchase of her own books.
Myrtilla's formal education began at home. Her aunt, Ann Miner, founded a small school for some of the town's children and conducted classes at the Miner cottage. In time Ann gave up her small class, and Myrtilla enrolled in the district school located about half a mile from her house. The daily walk was difficult. The roads were little more than dirt trails, and the terrain was rocky, uneven, and very steep. The incline from her home was so abrupt that on several occasions her momentum caused her to fall to the ground and bump her head.
Once she completed the difficult portions of her daily journey, Myrtilla would enter the little town and make her way to the district school. The schoolhouse was located in a valley, and its rustic image appeared much like a 19thcentury postcard. "Here I could see four dwellings, two churches, a black smith's shop, a carriage maker's shop and the old ... antiquated school house," she remembered. "At the foot of the hill is the old red colored school-house ornamented with an attachment of sheds." The focus of the tranquil scene, however, was not, according to Myrtilla, the school building but the two nearby churches that lay not 25 yards apart from one another. "So long as the opposition church was in vogue the voice of the speaker in one could easily be heard in the other, sometimes the language distinctly."
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As Myrtilla began her education she immediately realized that girls were taught differently than boys of the same age — or not taught at all. In the early 1800s women were viewed as inferior to men and lacking in academic ability. Women had very few rights and were dominated by men at almost every turn. About half as many women as men could read. Women could not vote, in some cases could not own property, and were discouraged from expressing political or business views. Once married, women lost almost all legal rights to their husbands.
Education for girls was generally informal and not taken seriously by the male-dominated American society. Though Myrtilla was taught to read and write in the district school, female education in the early 19th century usually focused on domestic training and household chores such as taking care of children, preparing meals, and running a family. Even Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States had written, "A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me." Plain and simple, he, and many like him, never thought about the issue.
In contrast to the norms of the day — and much to her father's disappointment — Myrtilla had little interest in domestic or household matters. She loved to read books and wanted to learn as much as she could beyond her own family and village. So indifferent to everyday items of fashion or girlish pursuits was Myrtilla that she even sewed together her multiple undergarments into one pullover sheath in order to save the extra time it took for her to dress each morning.
Though Myrtilla loved being at school she was often perplexed by the limited resources and opportunities available for girls. The inadequacy of female education in America frustrated her and kindled in her a sense of justice and a desire to make change. Why, she wondered, should girls not be given the same opportunities as boys to learn and to advance their education? During her school years, Myrtilla first acquired what she would later call "the principles of independent action" — an inner drive that would inspire her to action in the face of opposition.
As poor as education for white women was in the early 1800s, education for African Americans was far worse. In some regions of the country, even free black people — whose families had been enslaved and persecuted for generations — were discouraged from reading, and it was against the law for enslaved people to attend school. While white women began wondering about equal rights, black Americans suffered with virtually no rights. Though she did not realize it as a child, the anger that Myrtilla felt for gender bias would soon extend to racial bias, and the two together would come to define her life's work.
By age 15 or 16, Myrtilla understood that the best way for her to change the system was to join it. She began teaching other young children at the district school and was eager and enthusiastic about her work. Teaching was one of the only professions that women were encouraged to pursue beyond homemaking. From the start, Myrtilla was at home in a classroom. While some young women her age began to think of boys and ultimately marriage, Myrtilla's frail health and single-minded focus on books and study made dating and courtship unlikely. She enjoyed the company of boys, but her disinterest in housekeeping and child rearing seemed to make her an unlikely bridal candidate. Though she would fall in love several times in the coming years, it seemed that marriage was not in the cards for Myrtilla.
By 1835 she was teaching in nearby Oneida County near her brother David's home, but her thirst for learning did not stop just because she was a teacher. She knew instinctively that she would have to continue her education in order to be the best teacher that she could be. "This could only be done," she wrote, "by training the mind."
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In the early 1800s a growing movement in favor of women's rights gave birth to a series of private girls' schools called seminaries. These institutions began to gain acceptance not only because of changing attitudes toward women but also due to a belief that a broad education would make women more skilled wives and mothers.
In the fall of 1839, when Myrtilla was 24 years old, she applied for admission to the Young Ladies Domestic Seminary located in Clinton, New York. There she hoped to further her education in a wide variety of subjects with the goal of passing on her learning to her future students.
The school tuition was $120 per year, and in what may have been a first-of-its-kind program, each student was expected to provide manual work in return for room and board in a type of work-study setting. Myrtilla had very little money to pay the other required fees and expenses. She begged the principal and founder of the school, Rev. Hiram H. Kellogg, to allow her to delay payment until after she resumed earning enough money as a teacher — and was ultimately accepted on that basis. "It was indeed, pathetic to see this young, frail girl, with her pale face and lustrous eyes, pleading for an entrance to the halls of learning," wrote Ellen O'Connor, "and perhaps it was the consciousness of this that influenced [the principal] to accept her conditions."
She and her father traveled to the seminary in Clinton on a cold November day in 1839. Such was Myrtilla's excitement at beginning her new adventure that she completely forgot to say good-bye to her father and thank him for transporting her and all of her things to the school. The head teacher, Mrs. Tompkins, greeted Myrtilla at the door and quickly shuffled her off to a warm room where a fire was burning in an open hearth. There Myrtilla sat alone listening intently as students in an adjoining room of the house recited poems and addresses for their teacher. Seth Miner no doubt stewed in the cold outside as he waited for a farewell from his daughter, but when Myrtilla finally realized her blunder it was too late. The only way to the front door was through the occupied classroom, and she was not about to intrude on the students' meticulous narrations!
Female seminaries represented a growing trend in the early 19th century toward expanding women's rights and education. At a time when formal educational opportunities for women were scarce, seminaries, or female boarding schools, provided a broad range of academic subjects taught by well-trained instructors. The goal of these schools was to offer women a liberal education beyond the simple district schools, allowing them to be not only better wives and mothers but also useful members of society in general. Despite the broad message of gender equality espoused at these institutions, the student body was composed almost exclusively of white women. Educational opportunities for black women lagged far behind. Many female seminaries evolved into four-year colleges and provided women with training equal to or better than what was offered to men. Women were often trained at seminaries to be teachers for the many students attending the new public schools that were sprouting up throughout the United States. The seminary movement was fueled by an understanding that equality for women was a requirement of American society and that education was a central focus of that equality. How could women compete on an equal footing with men if they were not provided with equal educational opportunities? This was the question being asked by 19th-century women's rights advocates and educators such as Mary Lyon, Emma Willard, and Catharine Beecher. Each of them fought for the educational rights of women and helped to build the movement of female seminaries in America.
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"I doubt not my father felt not a little chagrined when he found that after all his pains to transport me here he was left without any expression of thankfulness or parting salutation," she wrote. Then, in resignation, she added, "I had no remedy only to let my forgetfulness pass for a mistake and make the best I could of it."
When the class finally ended and Seth had long departed, the entire school of nearly 40 students, Myrtilla included, gathered in a large circle and was led in a 10-minute physical exercise period. Mrs. Tompkins, it turned out, was a distant relative of the Miner family, and later in the day she and Myrtilla sat down and talked like old acquaintances.
Myrtilla was given a room on the third floor attic of the building, and since this required her to climb many steps (elevators having not yet been invented), she was temporarily excused from the kitchen duties usually required of all students. Miss Fowler, the matron of the school in charge of student well-being, was aware of Myrtilla's health problems and assured her that as soon as possible she would be given a room on the lower floors.
In a very short time Myrtilla settled into a rigorous schedule. The students were woken every morning by a clanging bell at 5:00, and by 5:15 they were gathered in the schoolroom for worship and the singing of Christian hymns. Prayer and religious devotion entered nearly every part of the day. Meals began with prayer and song, and the students were encouraged to study Bible passages and repeat Sunday school verses. Each student was given kitchen or household chores, and each was expected to join in group physical exercises and personal study time in addition to classroom work. Myrtilla reported that her studies included arithmetic, chemistry, philosophy, composition, and astronomy — a class that she eloquently called "geography of the heavens." The typical school day ended at precisely 8:30 pm, and lights were expected to be out by 9:45. In a letter written to her family during the first few days at the seminary, Myrtilla cheerfully reported, "Health pretty good — friends a plenty." In a signal, however, of the obvious nerves that went along with her new experiences she signed the letter, "My mother's anxious child, Myrtle Miner."
One afternoon Myrtilla gazed out her bedroom window at the Young Ladies Domestic Seminary and marveled at the quaint and beautiful setting below. She was so impressed by the scene that she recorded her impressions in a school essay, describing the area as "rich and pleasing in the highest degree." The essay provided a wonderful glimpse into 19th-century life in Clinton, New York, through the window of Myrtilla's third-story bedroom:
The street which leads to the village is lined on each side with neat cottages, with green blinds and pleasant yards. These are ornamented with shrubbery and children. The latter are busily engaged in the sports of a delightful summer evening. Upon the walk may be seen ladies devoted to pleasure walking and seminary girls without bonnets. A lady rides up street on horse-back, but quite too slow for me. Three ladies ride down in a carriage, driving a cunning little pony. An old gentleman and his young wife come out into their yard to look at the shrubbery. They appear as loving as kittens.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Noble Woman"
Copyright © 2018 Michael M. Greenburg.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: To Preserve a Memory 1
1 A Country Girl 7
2 Awakening 21
3 Mississippi 33
4 "The Antislavery Altar of My Country" 47
5 "I Shall Try It!" 65
6 "National Only in Name" 77
7 "The School for Colored Girls" 89
8 Growing Pains 105
9 Exhilaration and Exhaustion 117
10 "William the Unlucky" 131
11 "A Perpetual and Impassable Barrier" 141
12 This Noble Woman 151
Epilogue: "You Are That Monument" 173
Resources for Further Exploration 183