Greensboro Female College During Slavery and Freedom, 1846-1900
Higher education opportunities for American women are largely taken for granted today, but they were much less available in the early 1800s, especially in the South. Some of the residents of Greensborough, North Carolina, though, were more progressive than most. First, Presbyterians founded Greensboro Female Academy as a preparatory school for young girls in 1816. Then local Quakers launched a coeducational institution in 1837 for their young boys and girls that would eventually become Guilford College in 1888. Next, future North Carolina governor and Greensboro leader John Motley Morehead opened Edgeworth Female Seminary in 1840 for teenagers.
GC’s story begins with the Rev. Peter Doub, pastor of the First Methodist Church, who began Greensborough Female School in 1832 at the behest of local Methodist women; a school which even then offered a curriculum more advanced than that of GFA, the Quaker school, or EFS, or most common schools for boys or girls in the South. In February 1837, Rev. Doub, Moses Brock, and Samuel S. Bryant petitioned the Virginia Conference of the Methodist Church to establish a female college in Greensboro for young ladies. On December 28, 1838, the North Carolina General Assembly granted a charter for Greensborough Female College Preparatory School, making it one of the earliest women’s colleges in the South. GFC and the other three female institutions in Greensboro joined nearby Salem Academy as the only all-female schools in the state. Largely due to the economic challenges of the late 1830s and early 1840s, construction of GFCPS’s buildings did not begin until 1843. Construction was completed in 1845, and classes officially began in April 1846 under the leadership of President Rev. Solomon Lea. The original Main Building (before the wings were later added) contained 36 rooms and cost $20,000 to build. It was the only building on campus.
Eighty-seven young women enrolled in 1846, led by eight male instructors. The first six graduated in 1848, having completed a course of study including philosophy, algebra, mental and moral science, chemistry, astronomy, and Latin. By 1861, 191 young ladies had attended GFC. Most did not stay long enough to earn their certificate.
Laura Crump was one of GFCs’ first six graduates. To hear about her experiences, visit the HERstory voices page.
North Carolina Methodists and Slavery
While John Wesley, one of the Methodism’s founders, and Rev. James O’Kelly, a pioneering 18th Century American Methodist from North Carolina, were adamantly opposed to slavery, the question of slavery was one of a number of complex issues confronting Methodism in America in the early 1800s, causing increasing tension between northern and southern church factions. In 1844, the American Methodist church split, and Southerners formed the Methodist Episcopal Church. As one might expect given his stature within the North Carolina Methodist Conference, the historical record indicates that Rev. Doub was an active participant in the Methodist conferences’ deliberations regarding the issue of slavery.
GFC during the Civil War
In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected U.S. President despite receiving no electoral votes in the South. Lincoln’s election sparked the secession of seven lower South states and the formation of the Confederate States of America in February 1861. A majority of white North Carolinians, including in Greensboro, remained Unionists and opposed secession.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate forces attacked a US military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. President Lincoln then called upon all “Loyal States” to provide 75,000 troops to put down South Carolina’s rebellion. Every southern state rejected the call and pro-secessionist, pro-slavery forces in North Carolina gained the upper-hand by May 1861. On May 21st, North Carolina became the last southern state to secede. While some anti-war, anti-Confederate sentiment persisted in Guilford County elsewhere in the Piedmont in 1861, most white young men, including in Greensborough, rushed to volunteer and the ladies of GFC sent them off to war with formal farewells. Click here to listen to GC student Nancy Witcher Keene’s (1861) story about life at GC on the eve of war. Click here to read about Mary Lindsey Miller, who attended GC between 1860 and 1862.
A fire destroyed Main Building on August 9, 1863 and forced the College to close until 1873. President/Rev. Turner Jones arranged for alternative instruction for some students in the intervening years.
GC after the Civil War
Rev. Jones, with the help of alumnae and local supporters, was able to raise funds to begin rebuilding Main Building in 1870. It is likely that African American carpenters and brick-masons were among those working on rebuilding Main Building, pictured below in mid-reconstruction in 1871.
|Courtesy of Greensboro College|
GFC reopened on August 27, 1873 with 154 students. Enrollment continued to recover through the turn of the century. By 1900, 692 ladies had graduated GFC’s two-year program of study certificates since 1873. The curriculum also expanded. In 1900, 18 white men and women served as faculty members.
While no African American men or women were allowed to attend GFC as students or serve as faculty, African American men and women were very likely a regular presence on campus as service workers and general laborers. Back in their own communities, like Warnersville established in 1868, black Greensboro citizens built homes, businesses, churches, and schools. To learn more about Warnersville’s early, history, visit the “Warnersville” section of the J.C. Price School web project, created and hosted by GC.
Through the 1890s, black men also registered and voted and were a part of local and state politics and public policy.
Dr. Jones and the other white men who would serve as G.F.C.’s presidents and trustees in the Postbellum era might possibly have been reluctant Confederates during the war, as was much of the local white population. If so, they and much of Greensboro’s white elite were in opposition to black male voting rights, civil rights, and economic advancement through the turn of the century. In part because of the influence of the local Quakers as well as industrialist newcomers in textiles and tobacco, however, Greensboro did not experience the level of political conflict, racial extremism, and racial violence which characterized other North Carolina towns and the eastern portion of the state in the 1890s during the Democrats’ White Supremacy campaign. The White Supremacy Campaign in North Carolina and across the South culminated with the imposition of the “Jim Crow” system of race relations and racial policy that would define life for black and white citizens in Greensboro, including on GFC’s campus, for the next sixty-five years.
To learn more about the White Supremacy Campaign in North Carolina, the organized racial violence it encouraged, and the imposition of legal segregation and political disfranchisement of black male voters that followed, visit: “1898 and White Supremacy” and “The Election of 1898 in North Carolina.”