Private Antebellum Academies

Private academies were the primary form of education in Mississippi for the first sixty years of the nineteenth century. Academy referred to any type of secondary education, including what are also known as seminaries, institutes, classical schools, colleges, and universities. While some academies received limited financial support from the state, most were privately owned, were controlled by self-perpetuating boards of trustees, and offered flexible and varied curricula. These institutions took on students of both sexes and appealed primarily to the wealthy, although some institutions offered scholarships for poor students or those intending to enter the ministry.

The creation of academies in Mississippi followed settlement patterns that often divided people by region within the territory and later the state. While the Ker School at Natchez was the first academy on record (1801), in 1802 Gov. William C. C. Claiborne spoke of the need to found a “seminary of learning.” Shortly thereafter, the territorial legislature passed an act establishing a college, leading to the chartering of Jefferson College the same year. Nine academies opened in the Mississippi Territory from 1802 to 1817, seven of them located within the Natchez District, primarily because much of the territory’s wealth and population were concentrated in this political, commercial, and intellectual center. The rest of the territory was more sparsely populated and poorly developed and lacked the means to create educational institutions.

After statehood in December 1817, the Mississippi academy movement grew rapidly, with six new academies in operation by 1820. Among them was the Elizabeth Female Academy, which opened its doors in 1818 and was the first female-only school incorporated by a territory or a state and the first institution to achieve college status in the Gulf States. Throughout the 1820s, the academy movement garnered new strength, with thirteen additional institutions chartered by the legislature and seventeen others established or operated without legislative recognition. Although Natchez remained the state’s educational center, the number of schools expanded in the central, eastern, and northern parts of the state; the coastal sections, however, lagged behind. By the prosperous early 1830s, when settlement increased and the state developed, fifty-seven new academies were chartered and an additional twenty-two were established. A delayed reaction to the economic depression of the late 1830s led to a slight decline in the number of academies established in the 1840s, but the late 1840s and 1850s realized a revival of interest in education owing to a healthier economy, a growing population, and the rise of new educational centers in the state, such as Holly Springs, which boasted four institutions with a total of between four hundred and five hundred students.

Considerable variation existed because no centralized system of control existed and most academies were privately owned by individuals, stock companies, or religious denominations. In most cases, a board of trustees elected the principal and assistants, created rules and regulations, determined salaries, and prescribed the curricula. Teachers planned courses of study, enforced rules, and conducted day-to-day operations. Many teachers were college graduates, and in 1821 the legislature required that they be qualified to teach Latin and Greek in addition to all common school subjects. Small schools often had one or two teachers, while larger schools could employ five to ten instructors, but turnover remained high as teachers moved into more profitable positions. All institutions had boards of visitors, often appointed by the trustees, who examined students, observed and evaluated the facilities, and then made public reports. Most academies were boarding schools in which the students paid extra fees for room, meals, and laundry. Departments of study and classrooms were frequently housed in a single building, with separate dormitories constructed for the students.

Most academies struggled financially and sought to obtain money by hosting lotteries, through loans or grants from the state, and via private donations from individuals or organizations. The major source of revenue, however, was tuition fees, which averaged between twenty and thirty dollars per student per term (between twenty and twenty-two weeks).

Academy rules and regulations also varied, but most established specific study hours, dress codes, and mealtimes. Academy officials often imposed strict discipline, filling parental roles. Corporal punishment was acceptable for boys when serious situations required it but was seldom employed in girls’ schools, where demerits constituted the major form of punishment. Academies sought to develop students’ moral and intellectual capabilities, generally beginning and ending each day with organized prayer.

By 1860 Mississippi had fifty-two chartered female academies. Coeducational academies had separate departments for the sexes and were characterized by close supervision and a “lock[ed] door and a ceiled partition” between the two departments. Most academies had three levels of work—elementary, secondary, and collegiate—but focused on the secondary level. Some institutions had only age requirements for admission, while others stipulated reading levels, and still others had more in-depth entrance examinations. The curricula combined classical, literary, and scientific subjects. Students took courses in Latin and Greek language and literature, English language, rhetoric, history, engineering, and mathematics. Quarterly, semiannual, and annual examinations were public events to which community residents were invited, providing good publicity for the schools. While the state legislature allowed some academies to confer degrees, most granted diplomas or certificates of completion.

Further Reading

  • Edgar W. Knight, Public Education in the South (1922)
  • David Sansing, Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)
  • Herbert Glenn Stampley, “The Academy Movement in Mississippi during the Nineteenth Century” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1950)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Private Antebellum Academies
  • Author
  • Keywords Private Antebellum Academies
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date February 16, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 12, 2018