Early Texas Black Education – Mary Allen Seminary, Crockett, Texas
The Mary Allen Seminary, a boarding school for African-American girls, went through two earlier permutations. The school was founded as the Crocker Presbyterian Church Colored Sabbath School (1871-1875) and then became the Moffatt Parochial School (1975-1885). The Reverend Samuel Fisher Tenney was apparently active in the founding of both schools.
In 1886 the Board of Missions for Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church began planning for the establishment of a black girls’ school in Texas. Reverend Tenney saw an advertisement referring to the project and immediately responded. The secretary to the Board of Missions for Freedmen, the Reverend Richard Allen, was soon invited to Crockett. Prominent businessmen joined Reverend Tenney in receiving him. After a statewide survey, Crocket was chosen as the school’s location–partly because of the county’s large African-American population and partly because of the Black parochial school that Reverend Tenney had previously founded. The community offered a grant of ten acres on a hilltop plot north of the city.
Reverend Allen’s wife, Mary Esther, actively promoted “our Texas boarding school for colored girls” and took on a key organizational fundraising role through the Women’s Executive Committee of the Board of Missions for Freedmen. When Mrs. Allen died suddenly, the board agreed that the official name of the school should be Mary Allen Seminary.
Reverend J. B. Smith was commissioned to take charge of the new seminary, which opened on January 15, 1886. (Yes, Reverend Smith was a white male.) Mary Allen Hall, a four-story brick structure with basement, was completed on October 1, 1887, at a cost of $20,000, including furnishings. The school began as a day and boarding school offering courses at the primary, elementary, high school, and teacher-training levels for girls only. The seminary published its first catalogue that same year.
Two years after opening, the school had an official June dedication.
Here’s one (apparently anonymous) description from an out-of-town visitor to that event.
“A trip to Texas in the latter half of June is no pleasure trip so far as the comfort of travel is concerned ; but Mary Allen Seminary was to be dedicated on the 19th of the month, and we felt it important to be there. The trip, however, in spite of the hot weather and rough southern railroads, was not without interest and pleasure. It was interesting to mark the differently advanced state of the growing crops and fruits as we proceeded southward. In Ohio and Illinois the young corn was only a foot high, and the wheat just heading ; in southern Missouri, the next morning, we saw the corn waist high and the wheat in full head. That afternoon in Arkansas we found the corn in the tassel, and the wheat ready for the sickle ; and in Texas the next day we saw that the wheat had been harvested, and we had ears of the new, fresh corn on the dinner table, together with all the vegetables, which we do not have in the North till July and August. It looked strange to northern eyes to see peach and plum trees hanging full of ripe, luscious fruit in June.
Mary Allen Seminary is our new boarding-school for colored girls, located at Crockett, Houston county, Texas, on the main line of railroads leading from St. Louis to Galveston. The building stands on a ten-acre lot presented by the citizens of Crockett, and is indeed “beautiful for situation,” overlooking the village, a little less than a mile away, and the entire surrounding country. It is said to be the highest point in the county. Whether this be so or not, it is certainly true that from the tower of the seminary you may have an uninterrupted view over the country for twelve miles in every direction. The building has four stories with wide, airy halls, and bright, cheerful dormitories large enough to accommodate comfortably four girls each. The seminary was put up and furnished almost entirely by contributions from ladies’ societies and Sabbath-schools, and is supported principally from the same sources, not a dollar of the general funds of the Board having been expended in its erection or support.
Though only two years old, we found the seminary in a most prosperous condition, having enrolled during the term 152 pupils, 102 of whom were boarders. Arriving before the term closed, we had the privilege of witnessing the examination of all the classes, occupying two entire days. This was as thorough and as creditable on the part of the pupils as any examinations we have attended in similar white schools North or South. When it is remembered that most of these girls came directly from the cotton fields, their improvement in every department of study is simply marvelous. Faithful and thorough work has been done by the teachers, and good results have followed. We were specially interested in the work done in the industrial department, where all manner of sewing is taught and instruction given in the culinary arts. We saw girls with neat dresses on, which they themselves had cut, fitted and made, who at the beginning of the year did not know how to wear a thimble, and also neat specimens of hemming, stitching, darning and knitting, of which they knew nothing when they entered the seminary. We saw and tasted delicious loaves of bread, rolls, pies and cakes made and baked by girls who a year ago knew only how to make and bake the “corn dodger” and “hoe-cake,” and that only in a rough manner. The housekeeping in the institution is a model of neatness from cellar to garret.
But most of all we were impressed with the religious influence pervading the seminary. On each morning the whole school is divided into four Bible classes, and an hour spent in close and systematic study of the Bible. On every Sabbath morning from 9 to 10 o’clock the “Shorter Catechism” is studied in the same way. With such studies and the faithful instruction of consecrated teachers who feel a tender interest in the girls, it is not at all strange that a deep religious interest pervaded the school. It is just what may be expected anywhere under similar circumstances, and I was prepared to hear that a number of the girls had professed Christ and joined the church during the year. Among them were four Roman Catholic girls from Louisiana, whose conversion was very marked, as their Christian lives since evince.
The dedicatory services took place on the afternoon of June 19. The chapel was too small to accommodate all who were expected to attend, and so an arbor was erected adjoining the chapel, under which 800 or 1000 colored people were seated by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. On the platform were assembled a number of the best white citizens of the place, who expressed a deep interest in our work. Above the platform and under the arbor, hanging among the holly branches, was a large picture of Mrs. Allen, presented to the seminary by the ladies of East Liberty Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.
The exercises were commenced by a hymn sung by the girls, and beautifully sung it was. Rev. J. B. Smith, president of the seminary, then gave a short history of the school—its beginning two years ago last January with one scholar in an old hotel in the village, its rapid growth, the hard work they had in the old hotel, crowded with girls and no conveniences for their comfort, then of the gratitude they felt to the Christian women and Sabbath-schools of the North, when they were permitted to enter their new building. Then followed a solemn and touching prayer of dedication by Rev. Mr. Tenny, the pastor of the Southern Presbyterian Church, at Crockett, a warm friend of the seminary and of our work among the freedmen. A beautiful hymn of dedication was then sung by the girls, led by Miss Buttes, the teacher of music, and we wish all the women in our church could have heard that singing. We were then permitted to address the people, which we did with much pleasure and in the best manner of which we were capable, and were followed by an address from Colonel Nunn, a prominent lawyer of the town and once an officer in the Confederate army. The closing address was made by Rev. Mr. Tenny, and made a good impression on the audience, as we felt that every word came from a warm Christian heart. A chorus sung by the girl as only colored girls can sing, closed the afternoon service.
There was another dedication of the seminary previous to this of a unique but very touching character. Before the building was entirely finished a number of the girls asked permission of President Smith to go into one of the rooms and hold a little prayer-meeting. Permission being given, they went in and spent an hour in singing their weird plantation hymns and in prayer and thanksgiving to God, thanking him for their friends in the North who had built this house for them, and praying for his blessing on it When we heard this we felt there was no other dedication needed : these poor girls in the gratitude of their hearts had been before us, and we are sure that God had heard their prayers and accepted their humble thanksgivings; for,
“Richer by far was their hearts’ adoration, And dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.”
The day’s exercises were closed with an entertainment given by the girls in the evening at the chapel, consisting of essays, declamations, dialogues and singing. Some of the essays read would have done credit to the girls of any seminary in the land. Among the songs were a number of their plantation hymns, which were very beautiful and sung most impressively.
The house dedicated is only the main building; the wing in the original plan has not yet been built, but is very much needed. Many pupils, the president informed us, will have to be turned away next term for the want of it Oh that God would inspire the heart of some Christian lady or ladies to build this needed addition to the seminary !
We congratulate the women and the Sabbath-school scholars of our church, and the individual friends of our work, on the founding of this seminary for the daughters of the poor colored people of the South. The good which it has accomplished and will accomplish cannot be estimated. It is a light in a dark land among a benighted people. The influence of it will be felt not only in time but in eternity.
A permanent scholarship fund to aid poor and worthy girls is very much needed, and benevolent persons who have even small sums which they wish to invest for permanent good have a most excellent opportunity for doing so in Mary Allen Seminary. A single scholarship of $45 supports a girl for the entire school year. We trust those who have taken these scholarships will renew them for the next year, so that the girls who have been placed upon them may continue their course of study. If persons knew what struggles many of these girls have gone through and what sacrifices they have made in order to reach the seminary, many touching instances of which we could give, they would willingly extend aid to them. We do not know a better work that Sabbath- schools or Sabbath-school classes or individual Christians could do for the Master and his lowly poor than to take up one of these girls and help her through her seminary course, and send her forth as a teacher among her people. We are thoroughly convinced that these boarding-schools for colored girls are doing some of the most efficient work that is being done under the Board of Missions for Freedmen. A Scotia or Mary Allen Seminary in every southern state would go far toward solving the Negro problem.
President Smith and his devoted wife, with their excellent corps of teachers, in their arduous and self-denying work at Mary Allen Seminary deserve and should have the prayers and sympathy of the whole church. And is it not time for a ” Biddle ” in Texas as well as a ” Scotia ” ? a ” ,”— whose name shall we give it?—as well as a ” Mary Allen”? A commonwealth needs education for both sexes.”
At some point, the citizens of Crockett donated an additional twelve acres to the original campus. In 1889, the school acquired 300 acres of land adjacent to the campus, and Grace McMillan Hall was completed. These advances were made possible by gifts from northern donors. In 1890 the school listed eight teachers in addition to Reverend and Mrs. Smith and 211 students. Smith resigned in 1910.
The years 1910 to 1924 were years of discouragement, fire, and difficulty for Mary Allen Seminary. However, in 1924 the board commissioned Rev. Burt Randall Smith, the first black administrator, to revitalize the program of the institution. He developed an all-black faculty, upgraded the library and science laboratory, repaired the plant, and enriched the curriculum; in 1925–26 the high school department was accredited by the State Department of Education. In 1927 the first junior-college class graduated. The lower grades were gradually eliminated, and in 1932 the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools certified the junior college. In 1933 the school became coeducational and changed its name to Mary Allen Junior College.
After many other struggles over the years, the college finally closed its doors for good in September 1972.
LOCAL HISTORY OF MARY ALLEN SEMINARY
Physics Class taken about 1927
Prominently sited on the crest of a hill one mile north of the town square of Crockett, Texas, the Administration Building of the Mary Allen Seminary for black girls is an important example of a French Second Empire style institutional building. The symmetrically designed structure features a mansard roof and a projecting tower which highlights the main entrance. The building is ornamented by cast-iron work on the exterior and a handsome central staircase on the interior.
The Administration Building of the Mary Allen Seminary is generally rectangular in form, with two small additions to the rear, or north, facade. The building is four stories high, and the topmost floor formed by the mansard roof is, without question, the most distinguishing feature of the Second Empire style. The north and south elevations are seven bays wide, while the east and west elevations are each three bays wide. The building is of brick masonry construction, with external and internal bearing walls 18 in. thick and partition walls 8 in. thick. Continuous footings form the foundations. The south, east, and west elevations are faced with brick laid in common bond, while the north elevation is finished with a coat of stucco. The south elevation is dominated by the centrally located tower which defines the main entrance bay. The building is capped by a steep and straight-sided mansard roof.
There are presently two porches, one framing the main entrance on the south elevation, and another centered on a secondary entrance on the east elevation. Both are supported by slender, turned wooden posts. The porch on the south facade is the more intact of the two, with four posts supporting the second floor balcony. An openwork frieze of decorative woodwork combines with the turned posts to create a rather light entry porch on this substantial structure. The balcony above is enclosed by a crude balustrade consisting of square balusters and newel posts. The porch on the east elevation is generally similar, although it does not feature the second story balcony. Of special note are the turned pilasters attached to the exterior walls at the point where the porches join the main mass of the building.
Four doorways provide access to the interior of the building, each centrally located on four elevations. The main entrance is sited at the base of the central tower on the south facade. This double doorway features a pair of solid, four-panel doors and a simple, single-light transom without sidelights. The opening is spanned by a decorative cast-iron lintel. The other three doors are all single doors, with the east and north doors featuring four panels of glass in their upper sections. The east and west doors also have single-light transoms, and their openings are spanned by cast-iron lintels.
As was characteristic of the French Second Empire style, the fenestration of the building varies from floor to floor in terms of detailing and the form of the opening used. The window openings of the first floor are square headed, with cast-iron lintels occurring above the windows on the east and west elevations. The first-floor windows on the south elevation are paired versions of the standard sash with two-over-two lights used on all the structure’s windows. On the second floor, the windows are set within segmentally arched openings. On the south, east, and west elevations, these window openings are capped by decorative cast-iron hood moldings, while the more simplified openings on the north elevation only feature rather simple stucco bands above the window openings.
The window openings of the third floor are set in round arch openings, with cast-iron hood moldings applied on the south, east, and west elevations. Stucco moldings were again used on the north elevation. The fourth floor, formed by the mansard roof, is broken by windows only on the north elevation, which are set in segmentally arched openings. The central window bay on the north elevation is set slightly below the horizontal line formed by the other openings of each floor. This offset bay reflects the presence of a central staircase against the north wall of the building, thus necessitating windows on the stair landings.
The tower, sited above the main entrance, features much larger openings than those seen on the remainder of the structure. At the level of the second-floor balcony there is a broad, segmentally arched opening which frames double doors, the upper sections of which are comprised of two panes of glass. This opening is capped by a cast-iron hood molding. The window openings of the third and fourth stages of the tower are identical, and feature a pair of round-arch windows grouped under a cast-iron hood molding.
As noted earlier, the structure has a mansard roof which wraps around the south, east, and west elevations. The slope of the first stage of the roof is so steep that is appears almost vertical. This stage of the roof still retains its original wooden dentiled cornice. The upper stage of the roof is nearly flat and is not readily visible from ground level. The lower section is sheathed in fiberglass shingles, while the upper is covered by a standing-seam metal roof. Two stuccoed chimneys are present on the north elevation.
Two smaller additions were made to the north elevation of the structure, one at each end of the facade. The smaller of the two, at the northeast corner, served as a connecting link to another seminary building which was destroyed by fire in February of 1912. This former corridor is matched on the northwest corner by a larger and, apparently, much later one-story addition with no distinguishing features.
The interior plans for each of the four floors are virtually identical. A central corridor follows the center line of the east-west axis of the building, opening onto rooms to both sides. Each floor has 12 rooms. The staircase is the dominant interior feature, and is set opposite the entrance tower on the north side of the structure. The staircase alternates single and double sections as it rises through the building. The design of the stair is highlighted by a rather flat handrail supported by turned balusters. The adjacent walls are wainscoted in beaded boards to a height of approximately five feet. The overall character of the interior is one of spartan simplicity, with very plain, beveled baseboards and simple four-panel, solid doors serving as the only enrichment in the rooms. No original lighting fixtures remain, but a large number of original rim locks and doorknobs survive. The interior walls are of brick covered with plaster, and the original ceilings are of plaster over wood lath.
The structure has suffered from deterioration and alterations, largely brought about by damage inflicted by Hurricane Carla in 1962. The fifth-floor section of the central tower, which was of masonry construction, as well as the mansard roofed final stage, were both destroyed by the hurricane. After this damage, the tower was cut down and capped at the level of the roofline. Twelve dormers with pedimented elements, which were regularly spaced on the face of the mansard, are also absent. One of the openings for these missing dormers can be seen on the west end of the building where the later shingle roof has partially failed. The original cornice at the eaveline has also been removed. The window openings of the ground floor of the south elevation were modified many years ago and doubled in size. The sash type was not changed, and another window with two- over-two lights was installed alongside the original single unit. The existing balcony railing above the main entrance is a replacement for an earlier series of panels with cutout quatrefoil designs. Eight of the original ten chimneys have been taken down and sealed off at roof level, and were probably casualties of Hurricane Carla.
While it would seem that the structure has been stripped of a significant quantity of detailing, it must be noted that excellent early 20th century photographs clearly illustrate the original character of the building, and would be invaluable in any restoration program in the future. The structure is vacant at the present time. While there are openings in the roof and missing window panes which will admit water to the interior, there is little indication that the structure is in structural jeopardy. A report prepared for the Texas Historical Commission by Austin architect Joe Freeman, in September of 1982, notes that there is no significant structural damage, and that restoration could be accomplished without the use of any extraordinary measures.
There are three smaller structures on the Seminary site: two frame outbuildings and a brick-masonry fountain. The larger of the two was originally the dairy barn for the school, while the smaller outbuilding contains a single room which was used for storage purposes. The brick fountain was erected by the class of 1937 in memory of Lucille L. Smith, the wife of college president Byrd Smith.
Constructed in 1886, the Administration Building of the Mary Allen Seminary for black girls stands in one of the oldest structures in the town of Crockett, as well as in Houston County. It is a visible reminder of the united efforts of the Presbyterians toward the education of black girls and women in a predominantly rural, East Texas county. The structure is an important survival in terms of institutional architecture in the state, where buildings in the Second Empire style were once features of many college campuses. The structure reflects the growth and decline of black education in the area. It evolved from an all-white to an all-black administration, from a female seminary to a coeducational junior college, to a four-year coeducational college. Then it closed and was sold off to meet debts arising from lawsuits.
Architecturally, the Administration Building of Mary Allen Seminary represents an uncommon survival of a Second Empire educational building in Texas. During the 1870s and 1880s, the style was particularly popular on college campuses around the state, with Second Empire buildings being erected on the campus of Texas A&M in 1871-74, and at Baylor University in 1886. The Texas A&M Main Hall was destroyed by fire in 1912, while the mansard roofs of the Main Building at Baylor were removed in later remodelings. The first site of Trinity University, near Tehuacana, features a more elaborate Second Empire building erected in 1871, fortunately still intact and being renovated. The simplicity of the design of the Mary Allen building reflects the character of the structures at Texas A M and Baylor, with rather simple brickwork highlighted by decorative lintels and arched windows. Unfortunately, no documentation has been found which names either a builder or architect for this structure. While the building has suffered from hurricane damage and neglect, restoration could readily be achieved using the turn-of-the-century photographs of the Seminary which survive in good condition.
During the 19th century, several institutions of higher were established in Texas for the education of the state’s black population. Virtually all of them were founded by religious denominations, and Mary Allen Seminary was no exception. The Seminary was established in 1886 by the Board of Missions for Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church, which had its headquarters in Pittsburgh. Credit for attracting the interest of the Board must be given to the Reverend Samuel Fisher Tenney of the Presbyterian Church of Crockett. Rev. Tenney had personally contacted the Reverend Richard Allen, Secretary of the Board of Freedmen, who came to Crockett in 1880 with his wife Mary to consider a location for the Seminary. Crockett was selected after Rev. Allen had surveyed the state, and the Board of Freedmen authorized the construction of the Seminary early in 1886, with classes beginning later in the year. The Board chose Dr. J.B. Smith as the first president of the Seminary. Before the Seminary opened, Rev. Allen’s wife Mary died, and it was determined that the institution be named in her honor in recognition of her interest in its creation.
Dr. Smith served as President of the Seminary until his death in 1910, and was succeeded by Dr. H.P.V. Bogue. In February of 1912, the Seminary’s principal dormitory, Grace MacMillan Hall, was destroyed by fire. A replacement structure was erected shortly thereafter, and the Seminary continued operations. Dr. Bogue left the institution in 1918 after the death of his wife, and was succeeded by Dr. A.E. Hubbard. By the time Hubbard left Mary Allen in 1924, enrollment had declined to only 35 students, and the future of the Seminary was doubtful.
Byrd R. Smith of Greensboro, North Carolina, was named to succeed Hubbard as President of the Seminary. The first black person to hold the post, Smith’s appointment brought about a major change in the administration of the institution, which up to that time had been staffed by whites. Enrollment rose to 134 students, all of whom were boarders. In 1933 Smith had the status of the Seminary raised to that of a coeducational junior college, accredited by the State Department of Education. This certification enabled the graduates of Mary Allen to receive teacher’s certificates and to teach anywhere in the state. President Smith’s death in early 1941, and the outbreak of World War II resulted in major reduction in enrollment, and in July of 1943 the college was sold to a group of Crockett businessmen. In November of 1944 it was in turn sold to the General Baptist Convention of Texas.
Dr. S.R. Prince was named to serve as the first Baptist president, and in 1945 the school became a four year, coeducational college. In 1950 a 24-bed hospital was built with partial funding from the Ford Foundation, in addition to a new dormitory for male students. Mary Allen College lost its state accreditation in 1953 as a result of a scandal alleging the sale of academic degrees. Rev. Jodie C. Sanford attempted to regain certification in 1959, but failed. The school’s physical plant suffered damage from Hurricane Carla in 1961, when the Administration Building lost the top section of its tower. Then, in the summer of 1970 fire destroyed the two-story McMillan Hall. After years of declining enrollment and insufficient funds to maintain the campus buildings, the Missionary General Baptist Convention sold the site to the Stowe Lumber Company, in February of 1978, ending the 92-year history of the institution.
Bishop, Eliza, Houston County History. Heritage Publishers, Tulsa, OK. 1980.
Bishop, Eliza, Resume for a Historical Marker Application, submitted to Texas Historical Commission, April
Johnson, Mrs. Odetta Blake, “History of Mary Allen,” 1936. On file, Houston County Historical Commission
Smith, Dr. B.R., “History of Mary Allen Junior College, ” 1933. On file, Houston County Historical Commission
Tenney, Miss Emma, “History of First Presbyterian Church at Crockett,” 1930. On file, Houston County Historical
Houston County Deed Records: Volumes 51, 60, 199, 220, 228, 231, 334, 560, 602.
Houston County Deeds of Trust: Volumes 47, 171. Crockett, Texas.
Houston County Third Judicial District Court Civil Records: Volumes Z, 5 Also Civil Case Docket Sheets in the
District Clerk’s Office, Crockett, Texas.
Newspaper Articles: Crockett Courier, July 1, 1937; Houston Chronicle, Jan. 21, 1959 and Dec. 9, 1971; Houston
Post, Feb. 8, 1959; Crockett Democrat, August 12, 1959.
Oral Interviews conducted by Eliza Bishop, Crockett, Texas:
Charles Carter, Jr., Crockett attorney, present City Attorney;
J.B. Sallas, Crockett attorney, former State Legislator and Mayor of Crockett;
Mrs. Agnes Rhoder, teacher, Bible lecturer;
Prof. Selmus Curtis, Crockett school administrator;
Prof. I.T. Williams, retired vocational agriculture teacher, now City of Crockett administrative assistant;
Mrs. Sarah B. Gary, Seminary graduate;
Mrs. Mary Etta Jackson Hunter, Mary Allen College graduate;
Mrs. Daisy Pender, Seminary student;
Earl Stowe, Lumber Company president and present owner.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Crockett, Texas: May 1891; October 1896; June 1907; March 1912; April 1925;
Barker Center, Austin.