Portrait of Myrtilla Miner, from her biography by Ellen O'Connor
Far too many of the women who made a difference in our entwined histories—white and black—are forgotten or overlooked. One such woman was Myrtilla Miner.
Born in 1815 in Brookfield, Madison County, New York, into a white rural family with little or no education, Miner—who suffered from very poor health—was lucky to survive her childhood. She found a joy for life in reading, and borrowed every book she could get her hands on. She finagled an education, and ended up teaching, which led her to employment at a school for the daughters of plantation owners in Mississippi. This was her first look at the vicious plantation enslavement system. She was horrified, and at first tried to think up plans to free those she saw and heard under the lash. Those plans were soon abandoned but she resolved that she could at least help by giving reading lessons. She naively asked the owner of the plantation where the school was housed if she could teach the slaves to read, not knowing that was a criminal offense in Mississippi, which he explained to her, adding, "Why don't you go North to teach the nig**ers if you are so anxious to do it?"
She did—and entered the pages of history.
Follow me below the fold for more.
First graders from the Miner Normal School in Washington, D.C., brushing their teeth.
Their teacher was Ada Hand. (1910)
In 1885, years after Miner's death in 1864, Ellen M. O'Conner, who was the secretary of the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, published Myrtilla Miner: A Memoir
, which was "dedicated to the pupils of Myrtilla Miner and Alumni of Miner Normal school" and "affectionately inscribed".
As far as I know this is the only book about Miner, though she is mentioned briefly in scholarly works on the education of slaves and free negroes. The monument to her passage through the lives she touched is a building in Washington, D.C.—Miner Teacher's College, at 2565 Georgia Avenue, NW.
Miner fended off numerous attacks on the school, including stonings, arson, and physical threats, by learning how to shoot a revolver. Although often in frail health, Miner was a fierce advocate for her school. She was also an energetic fundraiser until her early death in 1864. D.C. Mayor Walter Lenox, in an article in the National Intelligencer, argued against the school, writing that it was not "humane to the colored population, for us to permit a degree of instruction so far beyond their political and social condition." He continued, "With this superior education there will come no removal of the present disabilities, no new sources of employment equal to their mental culture; and hence there will be a restless population, less disposed than ever to fill that position in society which is allotted to them."
From the 1870s through World War II, Miner Teacher's College educated the majority of African American elementary school teachers employed by the D.C. schools. According to historian Constance Green, the school offered "a better education than that available to most white children." In 1863, with a new charter from the U.S. Senate, the school's name was changed to the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth. Under the name Miner Normal School, it was associated with Howard University from 1871 to 1876. In 1929, an act of Congress accredited the school under the name Miner Teachers College. It merged with the white teacher training school, Wilson Teachers College, in 1955, and changed its name to D.C. Teachers College. That merged program was later incorporated with other institutions to form the University of the District of Columbia in 1976. The Miner Building still serves as the School of Education at Howard University. A plaque on the front honors Myrtilla Miner.
My encounter with her life and story came out of my quest for information about my own history, and the laborious task of tracing my mother's family who were slaves in Virginia
. It was their determined pursuit of education, that led them to found a colored schoolhouse for the children of freed slaves in Loudoun county. This information was found in the Freedmen's Bureau records of correspondence found in their microfilm files at NARA
(M1053 Roll 10. p.57-60).
There is no teacher now employed, because there is no house where one could teach, and I don’t suppose there is a white man anywhere in the community that would rent one for such a purpose, so foolish and wicked is the prejudice.
A teacher, and a good one will be sustained beyond doubt as soon as the house is erected. The people are ready and anxious to do all they can toward this house. Although this is the fourth year of their freedom, they have not a dozen in this whole community I suppose who have been taught since that time sufficiently to be able to read the Emancipation Proclamation. There has not been a school within 8 miles of this community, in any direction. The prejudice on the part of the whites has been unaccountable. I do trust the Bureau at Richmond will do largely toward the house of this poor neglected people, and let them have if possible $400.
My mother's aunt, who raised her, learned to read in the little schoolhouse that was eventually built and went on to attend Miner Teacher's college in D.C.
Raising funds to educate blacks was fraught with peril, as O'Conner relates in the memoir.
It is a thankless and disagreeable task to solicit funds for even the most popular and cherished objects. We can imagine, then, the discouragements which must have beset the path of this woman as she pleaded in aid of a project to which a vast majority of her countrymen were bitterly hostile, and which many, if not most, of the friends of the slave regarded as foolhardy and useless. To attack the slave power on slave soil had come to be regarded as futile, as well as dangerous in the extreme. Garrison had tried the experiment in Baltimore, and it ended in an imprisonment, from which he was with difficulty extricated. Miss Miner's plan was, really, to sap the slave power by educating its victims, for the free blacks were crushed under its remorseless heel almost as much as if actually slaves themselves.
So devoted a champion of his race as Frederick Douglass tells in the following letter to a trustee of the Miner School, with admirable candor, how he tried, in vain, to dissuade her from her undertaking
I have spent many years reading everything by and about Frederick Douglass, one of my greatest heroes, and was startled to find his letter reminiscing about meeting Miner.
It's available online in the digitized Frederick Douglass Papers
collection at the Library of Congress.
Full text transcribed here.
Frederick Douglass letter,
describing meeting Myrtilla Miner
"You have often urged me to tell you the little (and it is but little) I remember of Miss Myrtilla Miner, the founder of what is now the Normal School for Colored Girls in the city of Washington. The task is, in every sense, an agreeable one. If we owe it to the generations that go before us, and to those which come after us, to make some record of the good deeds we have met with in our journey through life, and to perpetuate the memory and example of those who have in a signal manner made themselves serviceable to suffering humanity, we certainly should not forget the brave little woman who first invaded the city of Washington, to establish here a school for the education of a class Long despised and neglected.
As I look back to the moral surroundings of the time and place when that school was begun, and the state of public sentiment which then existed in the North as well as in the South; when I remember how low the estimation in which colored people were then held, how little sympathy there was with any effort to dispel their ignorance, diminish their hardships, alleviate their suffering, or soften their misfortunes, I marvel all the more at the thought, the zeal, the faith, and the courage of Myrtilla Miner in daring to be the pioneer of such a movement for education here, in the District of Columbia, the very citadel of slavery, the place most zealously watched and guarded by the slave power, and where humane tendencies were most speedily detected and sternly opposed.
It is now more than thirty years (but such have been the changes wrought that it seems a century) since Miss Miner, in company with Joseph and Phebe Hathaway (brother and sister), called upon me at my printing-office in Rochester, New York, and found me at work, busily mailing my paper, the ' North Star.' It was my custom to continue my work, no matter who came, and hence I barely looked up to give them welcome, supposing the call to be an ordinary one, perhaps of sympathy with my work, or, more likely, an act of mere curiosity, and continued. I was not long permitted, however, to treat my callers in this unceremonious way. I soon found I was in a presence that demanded my whole attention. A slender, wiry, pale (not overhealthy), but singularly animated figure was before me, and startled me with the announcement that she was then on her way to the city of Washington to establish a school for the education of colored girls. I stopped mailing my paper at once, and gave attention to what was said. I was amazed, and looked to see if the lady was in earnest and meant what she said.
The doubt in my mind was transient. I saw at a glance that the fire of a real enthusiasm lighted her eyes, and the true martyr spirit flamed in her soul. My feelings were those of mingled joy and sadness. Here, I thought, is another enterprise, wild, dangerous, desperate, and impracticable, destined only to bring failure and suffering. Yet I was deeply moved with admiration by the heroic purpose of the delicate and fragile person who stood, or rather moved, to and fro before me, for she would not accept a chair.
She seemed too full of her enterprise to think of her own ease, and hence kept in motion all the time she was in my office. Mr. and Miss Hathaway remained silent. Miss Miner and myself did the talking.
She advocated the feasibility of her enterprise, and I (timid and faithless) opposed in all earnestness. She said she knew the South; she had lived among slave-holders ; she had even taught slaves to read in Mississippi; and she was not afraid of violence in the District of Columbia. To me the proposition was reckless, almost to the point of madness. In my fancy, I saw this fragile little woman harassed by the law, insulted in the street, a victim of slave-holding malice, and possibly, beaten down by the mob. The fate of Prudence Crandall in Connecticut and the then recent case of Mrs. Douglass at Norfolk were before me; also my own experience in attempting to teach a Sunday school in St. Micheal's and I dreaded the experience which, I feared, awaited Miss Miner. My argument made no impression upon the heroic spirit before me. Her resolution was taken, and was not to be shaken or changed. The result. I need not say has justified her determination.
I never pass by the Miner Normal School for Colored Girls in this city without a feeling of self-reproach that I could have said aught to quench the zeal, shake the faith, and quail the courage of the noble woman by whom it was founded, and whose name it bears."
Washington May 4, 1883
Miner died in carriage accident, and did not live to see her dream become a full college.
She is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery
in Washington, D.C.
She will live on in a legacy of teachers, and the ongoing battle to provide a quality public education for our children.
I am the daughter and granddaughter of teachers. I thank Myrtilla Miner and all those who helped make it possible for me to carry on that task.