In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Washington, six miles from Natchez, was a thriving hamlet. The site of Mississippi’s first territorial capital, Washington seemed to have a bright future, and its citizens saw the need for cultural and educational institutions that would reinforce its prominence and aid its growth. Having established Jefferson College in 1802, they turned to the instruction of girls, and Mississippi’s first school for girls, Elizabeth Female Academy, opened its doors in 1818. Named for Elizabeth Greenfield Roach of Philadelphia, who donated land and a building, the school was granted a charter by the Mississippi legislature and run under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. While male presidents oversaw the school, daily operations lay in the sphere of the female principal.
Elizabeth Female Academy experienced its greatest success under the direction of Caroline Thayer, who arrived in 1825 and had published extensively on education topics. She took great interest in the educational theories and practices of the day and introduced to the school ideas such as Johann Pestalozzi’s inductive learning and the use of monitors, advanced students who helped guide younger girls in their studies. Thayer attracted new students and oversaw the expansion of the school building during the 1820s.
At a time when many Mississippians continued to doubt the need for female education, Thayer and other educators at Elizabeth Female Academy held their students to rigorous academic standards in the belief that a strong academic education would benefit future wives and mothers. The curriculum included English grammar and composition, arithmetic, geography, American and ancient history, US government, natural and moral philosophy, botany, chemistry, astronomy, and Latin. Those who wished could also take lessons in French, drawing, and music. The school’s directors took advantage of its close proximity to Jefferson College: girls could occasionally attend lectures given by professors at the college, and naturalist John James Audubon taught at both institutions. Elizabeth Female Academy’s leaders also believed in regular exercise, which the school’s rural location facilitated.
Although the charter granted by the Mississippi legislature stated that “no religious test or opinion shall be required of the pupils” and students of many different denominations attended, religion had a central place at Elizabeth Female Academy. Most presidents were also Methodist clergymen who saw training pious Methodist women as one of their central goals. Boarding students attended prayer services twice each day, and all students were expected to adhere to rules such as those that required plain dress and banned dancing.
Elizabeth Female Academy closed in 1848. Natchez’s growth and development during the period after statehood had been mirrored by a sharp decline in Washington’s size and importance. As Natchez grew, more and more girls’ academies opened there, attracting not only city dwellers but also the rural residents of Adams County who had been Elizabeth Female Academy’s primary student base. The property passed back to Elizabeth Greenfield Roach’s heirs.
- Claribel Drake, Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine (May 1962)
- Charles B. Galloway, in Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, vol. 2, ed. Franklin L. Riley (1899)
- John G. Jones, A Complete History of Methodism as Connected with the Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, vol. 2 (1908)
- Edward Mayes, A History of Education in Mississippi (1970)
- Julia Huston Nguyen, “Molding the Minds of the South: Education in Natchez, 1817–1861” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 1997)