School Days on the Mountain 1880-1971

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

The exhibit currently on display at the University Archives takes visitors behind the scenes into the classrooms, dormitories, and boarding houses where mountain students lodged in the early days of education on the Mountain. Rather than a chronological assessment, “Local Learning: Education on the Mountain Around the University of the South, 1880-1971” is as story about being there. St. Mary’s School’s rules for the all-female student body listed first: “No car riding with boys at any time.” For the 1920-1921 academic year Sewanee Military Academy enrollees attended classes in Palatka, Fla., where they lodged in a hotel. Quintard Hall, the school’s regular home, burnt to the ground when a fire discharged a munitions supply.

Students in Alison Miller’s Introduction to Museum Studies class (Easter semester 2020) curated the exhibit, the third student exhibit to be featured at the archives, said Director Mandi Johnson. Material availability largely dictates topic selection, Associate Director Matthew Reynolds explained. But from there students have a free rein. Offered a glimpse of what is hiding just out of sight, each student selects two projects to research and write descriptive labels for.

“There were local private primary schools, there was St. Andrew’s, there was St. Mary’s,” said Johnson touching on some of the archival materials available for the “Local learning” topic. Student interest quickly veered away from a straight-line chronological narrative.

Fairmont College opened in 1873, at the site of what is now Dubose Conference Center, to avoid the scourges of the yellow fever epidemic. The narrative about “Why girls should be sent to Fairmont” boasted “The location upon the Cumberland Plateau…yielding chemically pure freestone water and bathed in fresh bracing air is one of the healthiest in the United States.” The school earned an international reputation for educating young women. In 1910, Mayling Soong, who would become Madame Chiang Kai-shek, took summer courses at Fairmont.

Sewanee’s first long-term public primary school, Billy Goat School (c. 1899), taught 150-300 boys and girls in a three or four room schoolhouse. St. Mary’s School officially opened in 1896 as “an industrial school for Mountain girls.” The “no” rules also included, “No drinking,” “No smoking,” “No visiting dormitories or fraternities in Sewanee.”

An Order of the Holy Cross narrative (c. 1916) describes the St. Andrew’s Chapel as “the most important part of the weekly routine” for the boys who attended St. Andrew’s School.

Sewanee Military Academy first known as Sewanee Preparatory Academy became Sewanee Grammar School then Sewanee Military Academy, and finally Sewanee Academy before the merger with St. Andrew’s in the 1981. In the early days the students lodged in boarding houses. An 1870-80s photograph shows the rambunctious youngsters in full uniform posing on the roof.

“Sewanee Academy was when the military aspect was dropped,” Williams said. “SMA brought in St. Mary’s students for a few years. Then it became Sewanee Academy in 1970-71.” A 1968 photograph shows SMA girls in their uniforms, plaid A-line skirts. For winter, the girls wore wool kilts in the same tartan plaid.

In the public sector, the exhibit includes the 1926 blueprint for Sewanee Elementary School and a 1948 photograph of Sewanee African American students posed with the building materials for Kennerly School, Sewanee’s segregated school for African American children.

When the school desegregation debate came to the fore, the Sewanee Civic Association circulated a survey inquiring about residents’ opinions. Results indicated 88 percent favored integration and 94 percent said educational quality for black children at segregated schools was not “equally as good as that received by white children.”

A final display shows the 1964 affidavit of a Sewanee African American woman threatened at a local grocery store where she was told by another customer, she should take her children out of SES if she did not “want to see them killed.”

The exhibit will be on display through Aug. 5, weekdays, 1–5 p.m., and mornings by appointment. For the ultra-curious, Johnson and Reynolds will gladly guide exploration deeper into archival resources. Looking ahead, this fall’s student exhibit, Athletics, will peek behind the scoreboard at the sidelines, fans, and historical impact. Go to <; for more information.

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