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From Male and Female Academies to Claflin: The Beginnings of Education in Columbus

In August, Historic Columbus will be celebrating our community's educational history from the beginnings of Columbus in 1828 until more recent times. We will also highlight even more of our city's schools through our Facebook and Instagram posts during the week. Please check us out on social media -

@historiccolumbusga on Instagram and Historic Columbus on Facebook

These books have been great resources for this Spotlight: Columbus by David Owings; Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards by Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr.; Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley; A History of Public Education in Muscogee County and the City of Columbus, Georgia 1828 - 1976 by Dr. Katherine H. Mahan and William C. Woodall; and Red Clay, White Water and Blues by Dr. Virginia Causey.


In 1828, when Columbus was founded, the original plan for the new town included two blocks that were set aside for academies. The Male Academy square was bounded by 9th Street (Thomas) on the north, by 8th Street (Baldwin) on the south, by Veterans Parkway (Forsyth) on the east, and 3rd Avenue (Troup) on the west. The Female Academy square was bounded on the north by 11th Street (St. Clair), on the south by 10th Street (Crawford), on the east by Veterans Parkway (Forsyth), and on the west by 3rd Avenue (Troup).

The town of Columbus also had teachers its very first year. Men and women of various occupations and professions were flocking to the area, drawn by the lure of a new frontier community with its opportunities and challenges.

The first school to be erected on the Female Academy square was the Girls’ School at the corner of 11th Street and Veterans Parkway. It was opened in July 1832 under the superintendence of Miss Frances Gunby (Mrs. James N. Bethune) and Miss Griggs. Since those early days, a school has occupied that same site for a majority of the time. In the 1890s, the Girls’ School, a large two-story frame building, was destroyed a fire. In 1898, a two-story brick building was erected there, and it became Columbus High School. That building still stands and is now a part of St. Luke School. (A 1909 view is pictured below.)

Provision was also made in 1832 for Rev. John Baker, the Presbyterian clergyman, to have charge of the boys' education. Though no evidence is given of the location of the boy's school, it was opened in December that year. If the square set aside for the Male Academy was ever used, even in part, for school purposes, there doesn’t seem to be any record of it.

For the next few years teachers appear from all backgrounds. Among them were Mrs. E. J. Smith, opened the Columbus Music and Drawing School; and G. J. McClesky, "an infant school," which was a forerunner to the kindergarten system. In 1839, a school committee was appointed and was composed of John Bethune, W. S. Chipley, 0. Eley, John Patterson, and Joshua R. McCook. Altogether, there were ten or more Academies in Muscogee County incorporated by the General Assembly in the 1830s.

Prior to 1866, middle- and upper-class white children attended these smaller private academies, that were mostly gender-segregated. There was also a Muscogee County Poor School Fund for indigent white children. Many of the small private schools changed leadership frequently and closed after a few years. Others sprang up to replace those closed. In their desire to have education for their children, citizens opened schools in their homes or small buildings. A few actually built one, two- or three-room academy-type buildings. There was little or no support money behind these fledgling schools.

Wynnton Academy was established in 1837 for the children of the landowners located in the highland area to the east of the new town of Columbus, called Wynnton. The original school building was built in 1843. From Etta Blanchard Worsley in Columbus on the Chattahoochee: “Colonel John Banks, who moved to Columbus in 1836 settled in Wynnton, suburb of this young and thriving city, was a pioneer promotor of education in Columbus. Soon after his arrival, a plan for establishing academies in Wynnton was begun, because Colonel Banks knew the value of educational advantages, and with James N. Chambers, Van Leonard, A.H. Flewellen, and Colonel William L. Wynn, for whom Wynnton and Wynn’s Hill were named, a movement was perfected setting apart about four acres of land for use as an academy for girls; and not far from this location about six acres were provided to be held in perpetuity by trustees for an academy for boys.”

The girl's school would later become the site of John Flournoy's home, Hillcrest. By the end of the 19th century, the Wynnton Academy had both male and female students. By 1923, there was a need to enlarge the small schoolhouse and a larger building was constructed in front. Now in the center of the Wynnton Arts Academy complex, the original school building is a museum and art gallery. It is the oldest school building in continuous use in the State of Georgia.

Education in Columbus, in the form of private schooling, continued in the 1840s at an accelerated pace. Individuals continued to open schools, along with religious and other organizations such as the Muscogee Lodge, Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The establishment of the Columbus Female Asylum for orphans in 1844 through the efforts of prominent women of the Methodist church resulted in a school for the children at that institution, although the educational feature was later discharged due to lack of funds.

African American churches, prior to the Civil War, offered rudimentary education for free Black children, most of whom also worked. Georgia law, at the time, prohibited the education of enslaved people. However, local historian Alfonso Biggs recalled in 1982 that a blacksmith on his enslaved great-grandmother’s plantation ran a secret school at night.

In January 1866, New England missionary teachers arrived in Columbus to educate Black citizens. Thought students paid no tuition, seventy-one Black parents pledged financial support in November 1866. Churches and benevolent organizations raised funds for four schoolhouses for about six hundred students, though the facilities were less than adequate. Randolph Mott (he and his home famously never left the Union) persuaded city council to grant two acres of land in the city’s northeast corner for a school for those formerly enslaved. Financed with about $6,500 in federal funds, the missionaries named the two-story wooden school for Massachusetts Governor William Claflin. It was located on Fifth Avenue and would be owned by the Freedman’s Bureau. The structure (pictured below) was by far the finest for school purposes in the city. The brightest students were identified as future teachers. William Spencer, who became a force for African American education, was schooled at Claflin.

Public schools had become an established institution throughout the North and the East by the time of the Civil War. The battle for this type of education in those sections had been practically won by 1850. The struggle for free, tax-supported, non-sectarian, state-controlled schools was not easy. In the South, it was not until after the Civil War that a real beginning was made, and the movement made headway.

There were many arguments, both pro and con, in the public school issue, and both advocates and opponents were not lacking in ammunition. Here is a sample of those arguments made on both sides from Dr. Mahan’s book.

Arguments for Public Tax-Supported Schools

  1. That education tends to prevent pauperism and crime.

  2. That a common state school, equally open to all, would prevent that class differentiation so dangerous to a Republic.

  3. That the old church and private school education had proved utterly inadequate to meet the needs of a changed society.

  4. That the pauper-school idea is against the best interests of society, inimical to public welfare, and a constant offense to the poor, many of whom will not send their children because of the stigma attached to such schools.

  5. That the free and general education of all children at public expense is the natural right of all children in a Republic.

Arguments against Public Tax-Supported Schools

  1. Impractical, visionary, and “too advanced” legislation.

  2. Will make education too common and will educate people out of their proper position in society.

  3. Will not benefit the masses, who are already as well cared for as they deserve.

  4. That the State may be justified in taxing to defend the liberties of a people, but not to support their benevolences.

  5. That taking a man’s property to educate his neighbor’s child is no more defensible than taking a man’s plow to plow his neighbor’s field.

Pictured Above: William H. Spencer and John McIlhenny

On November 19, 1866, city council member John McIlhenny offered a resolution establishing a public school system for white children. McIlhenny came to Columbus in 1857 from Philadelphia to start the Gas Light Company. Under federal pressure in March 1871, city council appropriated $750 to create four three-month schools for African Americans. Unlike other southern cities during Reconstruction, Columbus’ school board hired Black teachers. Temperance Hall, originally a theatre on First Avenue between Twelfth and Thirteenth streets, served as the first public school for African Americans when the city provided educational facilities in 1872. It was a rented building and proved unsatisfactory. In June 1875, the school board purchased the African Methodist Church building on 6th Avenue to be used for school purposes.

By 1880, the Board acquired the Claflin School, and it became part of the Muscogee County public school system. Its campus was expanded in 1921, when a larger masonry building was added (pictured above). The Claflin School campus was expanded again in the 1940s with the construction of a brick equalization school. The original 1868 structure was destroyed by fire in 1958, but two buildings from the first half of the 20th century remain.

Two blocks from Claflin was another significant learning institution in Columbus. The Columbus Female College (pictured above) was located on the southeast corner of Third Avenue and 15th Street. It was one of the finest schools in town. It had its first graduating class in 1877. It was a classical institution of learning with a number of cultural departments like music and art – along with a long list of boarding pupils from out of town. The college burned in 1884 and by the 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, three private homes of good size were constructed on its site. One of these new homes that was located on the corner of Third Avenue and 15th Street, was the home of W.C. Bradley prior to moving to Wynnton Road in 1912.

This c. 1914 view appears to be the east side of Third Avenue between Fifteenth and Fourteenth Streets. Around that time, the Bradley, Nuckolls, and Edge families lived on this block. The Bullard-Hart house is the fourth house from the left.

Public schools in Columbus competed with the private schools until the 1880s when the public school system started to become more formalized. The 1880s decade was a period of marked expansion both in the number of school buildings and the quality of housing. In 1888, the school board also had to face its obligations to the children of Rose Hill and the Northern Liberties which had been annexed to the city. The number of private schools in Columbus also continued to grow and flourish until about the 1930s.

Next Week: We will continue to explore the growth of private schools and the formalization of the public school system. Highlights will include Lorena Hall, the Chase Conservatory of Music, the 10th Street School, the Secondary Industrial School, and the growth of the kindergarten system in Columbus. If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director

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