by Dr. K. Dawson-Smith and Claudette Hurd-Dawson
Following the Civil War, history credits the proliferation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as having pioneered the course of Black education in America. Recognizing the importance of conserving ethnic and racial history in America, the Amistad Research Center has contributed to the preservation of the history behind these phenomenal institutions and the era in which they flourished. Remarkably, a large percentage of these trailblazing institutions still remain active today. Yet, with the passing of time, some HBCUs have closed and are now classified as defunct, such as the Mary Allen College in Crockett, Texas. The Mary Allen College records is one of the largest HBCU collections housed at the Amistad Research Center. Remnants of the institution’s documentation were donated to Amistad in 2004 by Agnes Bell Rhoder, the institution’s last president, and Claudette Hurd (Dawson-Aleem), the beneficiary of the collection.
Thirty-five linear feet in size, the collection contains rare photos, letters and memos associated with the noteworthy civil rights activist, Authorine Lucy Foster, who worked on the campus of Mary Allen College after making history as the first African American female student to integrate the University of Alabama in 1956. The collection also includes correspondence between one of the colleges’ presidents and the eminent Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who in 1945 became the first African American to be elected into Congress from New York City.
Aside from these remarkable aspects of the collection, an extraordinary depiction of campus life and its administrative activities is visible in the countless photographs of students, staff, and presidents who served the institution during its more than 60 years of operation. While the staff and faculty were made up of individuals from all walks of life, resumes within the collection demonstrate that though inequality and racism pervaded the U.S. educational system for Blacks with collegiate aspirations, Mary Allen College’s faculty and administrators were highly educated with degrees ranging from Bachelor’s degrees to Ph.Ds.
The rich history behind the establishment of Mary Allen College is documented throughout the catalogs, newspaper articles, and legal documents within the collection. According to these sources, Mary Allen College’s early establishment was consistent with that of most Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Where shortly after slavery, the schools were thrust into existence largely through the work of missionaries. In the case of Mary Allen, the Board of Missions for Freedman and the Presbyterian Church USA were instrumental in the institution’s early stages of development. Spearheaded by Reverend Samuel Fisher Tenney in 1871, the Crockett Presbyterian Colored Sabbath School was established within the Crockett Presbyterian Church. By 1875, the school became recognized as the Moffatt Parochial School. Realizing that there was a need for additional financial support Tenney appealed to the Board of Missions. This resulted in the Board’s decision to secure a school dedicated to the education of Black females. throughout Crockett, Texas.
The school was subsequently named after Mary Esther Allen, who in 1884 became chairperson for the Women’s Executive Committee of the Board of Missions for Freedman. As chairperson, Allen worked tirelessly to ensure that the idea of a seminary for black female education became a reality. Like most Black colleges, Mary Allen Seminary’s earliest curriculum ensured that its female student population received primary, elementary, and high school educational training. Prior to the 1920s, the Seminary’s leadership was maintained by an all White administration. The Board’s decision to hire Reverend Byrd Randall Smith as president in 1924 would bring the Seminary its first African American president. Under Smith’s leadership, the institution would gain accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and gain classification as a two-year junior college. By 1933, the college would open its doors to Crockett’s Black male student population.
The onset of World War II altered and ceased all progress. By 1943, the Presbyterian Church USA could no longer support the college financially and as a result the institution was closed. The need for Black education persisted throughout Crockett. In 1944, the college was purchased and revived by the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Texas. Through the leadership of the college’s new president, Reverend G.L. Prince, Mary Allen College evolved into a four-year coeducational institution of higher education.
Mary Allen College would remain a majestic symbol of the Crockett community up until the 1970s. During this period, nine more presidencies were conferred with the ninth and final presidency being conferred in 1972 to the institution’s first female Black president, Agnes Bell Rhoder.
Rhoder’s presidency, however, was unbeknownst to many who lived in the surrounding community of Crockett, Texas. With the public announcement of the school’s intent to close in 1972, many assumed that the institution had suspended all forms of operation by this time. Yet, documentation within the collection suggests otherwise. Based on student transcripts, catalogs, memos, and letters, Mary Allen College remained active as a two-year junior college from 1972 until 1977. During this period, the majority of the students were military veterans.
Agnes Rhoder’s presidency inevitably caused her to become the custodian over what remained of the institution’s records following the closing of the college. Most of what remained was stowed in a private storage area on the grounds of her home. The location of the records was not discovered until 2004 when Claudette Hurd (Dawson-Aleem), sought information from Rhoder pertaining to the educational background of an aunt while performing genealogical research. After meeting and gaining an opportunity to view the collection, Hurd recognized that the collection was in danger of decomposing. She suggested that the collection be archived. This would ensure the longevity of the documents, as well as equip Hurd with a possible finding aid to assist her in learning of her aunt’s possible connection to the institution in the late 1800s.
Rhoder and Hurd collaborated to ensure that the future archival facility possessed the proper resources to guarantee the longevity of the collection. Hurd conducted a thorough search of archival institutions throughout Texas and Louisiana and sought the advice of those who were aware of prominent facilities in these areas. In 2004, Hurd and Rhoder agreed that the Amistad Research Center would be the new home of the Mary Allen College records. Hurd is still researching the collection with hopes of one day gaining knowledge of her aunt’s possible connection to Mary Allen College, an institution that once stood as a shining example for black education in Crockett, Texas.
The accession record for the Mary College Allen records is located here.
Images from the Mary Allen College records and Dr. Dawson-Smith. Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.