The Mississippi State Normal School for Colored Youth, generally called State Normal and located in Holly Springs, educated African American teachers from its inception during Congressional Reconstruction in 1870 to its closing during Gov. James K. Vardaman’s administration in 1904. One of the more idealistic efforts of Radical Reconstruction leaders was their interest in improving education for former slaves and their children. In 1870 the Mississippi legislature passed a law creating a teacher-training school in each of the state’s five congressional districts. Shaw University in Holly Springs offered to give the state its teaching department, and the legislature happily accepted.
State Normal opened in 1871 with 50 students and a small faculty. Attendance at State Normal ranged between 120 and 200 beginning in the late 1870s. Its attendance was slightly lower than that of other state institutions. For example, in 1888–89, when the State Normal School had 171 students, Mississippi A&M in Starkville had 313, the Industrial Institute and College in Columbus had over 300, the University of Mississippi had 232, and Alcorn A&M had 216.
Leaders of schools for African Americans in the Deep South walked a narrow line between inspiring young people with ideals of uplift and respectability while teaching numerous skills and trying not to cause controversies that might lead white leaders to cut off funding. For much of its history, leaders of the Mississippi State Normal School faced that tension. First, the state government tended to be suspicious of any spending on African Americans and allotted only three thousand dollars per year for State Normal from 1876 to 1889. Funding then dropped to twenty-five hundred dollars in 1890 and to two thousand dollars beginning in 1891. Second, legislators required State Normal’s curriculum to emphasize teacher training at the expense of other forms of education. The school had initially offered an impressive four-year program building from reading, spelling, arithmetic, and geography in the first term to metaphysics, rhetoric, algebra, history, chemistry, theories of education, physics, astronomy, literary criticism, calculus, Latin, and Greek. In response to complaints from white political figures who objected to such a complete liberal education for African Americans, the school cut its offerings down to a two-year program that concentrated on basic skills and pedagogy. Principal W. D. Highgate reported in 1891, “We have long since displaced the dead languages and in their stead put studies that will be in actual use in the school room.” But while emphasizing education designed to be of “actual use,” Highgate and other leaders also upheld egalitarian ideals that led to controversies with local whites, who accused Highgate of being “insolent and overbearing” and of encouraging his students “to be disrespectful and discourteous toward the white citizens of the town.”
Mississippi State Normal School withstood poor funding, criticisms from local whites, and a yellow fever crisis in 1879. It could not survive Vardaman, who worked to close the school as part of a broad effort to severely limit funding for African American education. He vetoed the appropriation for the school, arguing that “after forty years of earnest effort and the expenditures of fabulous sums of money to educate [the black man’s] head, we have only succeeded in making a criminal out of him and impairing his usefulness and efficiency as a laborer.”
African American leaders in northern Mississippi were outraged by the decision. According to Colored Methodist Episcopal church leader Elias Cottrell, State Normal “had given more colored men and women a Normal Education, at a normal cost, than any Institution of its kind in the South, and this Bigoted Governor is still doing all in his power, as the intelligent world knows, to take every dollar of public school money from us.”
- James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935 (1988)
- Alicia K. Jackson, “The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and Its Struggle for Autonomy and Reform in the New South” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2004)
- Chiquita Gail Willis, “The History of the Mississippi State Normal School for Colored Youth, 1870–1904” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1990)
- Stuart Grayson Noble, Forty Years of the Public Schools in Mississippi (1918)