George Petrie (1866-1947) was a historian, college professor, and coach of Auburn University‘s first football team. In addition to introducing football to what was then the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, Petrie brought innovative methods of teaching history to the university, founded the university’s graduate school, and mentored students who went on to become renowned historians.
George Petrie Born in Montgomery, Montgomery County, on April 10, 1866, to George Laurens Petrie and Mary Jane Cooper Petrie, George Petrie was the descendant of prominent families from South Carolina and Georgia. Both his grandfather, George Hollinshead Whitefield Petrie, and father were Presbyterian ministers. Petrie’s grandfather was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Montgomery from 1857 to 1885. After living in Montgomery and Greenville, Butler County, Petrie moved, in 1872, with his parents to Petersburg, Virginia, where his father became minister of the Second Presbyterian Church. In 1878, the elder Petrie accepted a position as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Petrie entered the University of Virginia in 1883 and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1886, then received a master of arts degree there in 1887. Most of his studies focused on languages, especially Latin, Greek, French, and German, and moral and natural philosophy. He likely saw his first college football game while at Virginia. In June 1887, Petrie took a position teaching modern languages and history at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. After two years in Auburn, Petrie resigned in June 1889 and entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he planned to earn a Ph.D. in modern languages.
By his second year at Hopkins, however, Petrie had changed his major and began working on his doctorate in history. Johns Hopkins University was one of the first universities in the United States to adopt the German model of “scientific” scholarship. “Scientific history” emphasized the use of visiting lecturers who were experts in their fields, the analysis of primary sources, and the seminar, which emphasized class discussion and debate, as well as the writing of in-depth research papers.
George Petrie with Students and Faculty, 1890 Petrie completed his Ph.D. in the spring of 1891, a year short of the usual time requirement at Johns Hopkins University. By June 1891, he had accepted a position as a professor of History and Latin at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama and returned to Auburn. Petrie was determined to teach history as he had learned it at Johns Hopkins, a very different model from what was generally used at universities in the South. He encouraged his students to travel across the South to find original source material and also exposed his students to the latest scholarship by inviting some of the nation’s best-known historians from other universities to come to Auburn to lecture.
Also while a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, Petrie had grown to love the new sport of football that was sweeping the northern part of the nation in the late nineteenth century. Shortly after he returned to Auburn, in 1891, Petrie organized and coached the college’s first football team. The school played its first game, held in Atlanta, Georgia, against the University of Georgia on February 20, 1892, defeating Georgia 10 to 0. The Agricultural and Mechanical College played a total of four football games that first season and amassed a record of two wins and two losses. In December 1892, before the college’s second football season began in the winter of 1893, Petrie resigned as coach, citing his teaching and professorial duties as the reason.
George Petrie’s Classroom, 1893 In addition to his academic and athletic pursuits, Petrie also became active in the Auburn community as a member of the local literary society, The Auburn Conversation Club, and as an enthusiastic bicyclist. On August 30, 1893, he married Mary Barkwell Lane, daughter of engineering professor and former Confederate general James Henry Lane. The couple had one child, Mary Cooper Petrie, who was born May 1, 1900, but lived just a little over a year, dying on June 30, 1901.
During his career, Petrie also sought to preserve historical documents and, as a result, forged friendships with professional and amateur historians throughout the state. Petrie helped Thomas M. Owen establish the Alabama Department of Archives and History in 1901, the first state archives in the nation. In addition, he actively participated in the Alabama Historical Society, a predecessor of the current Alabama Historical Association, and founded the Alabama Polytechnic Institute Historical Society (the school had changed names in 1899), which gave students more opportunities to do original research. Petrie also prepared many students for graduate study at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins. His students included Walter L. Fleming, Frank L. Owsley, and Herman Clarence Nixon, who each became well-known historians.
Petrie, George Petrie was a meticulous researcher, but he published very little. His most significant contribution to the historical profession was in the field of historiography, where his innovative research methods and quest for quantitative history led him to conduct pioneering work. From 1907 through 1913, he and some of his students mailed a questionnaire to and conducted oral interviews with hundreds of former slaves, white slave owners, and nonslaveholding whites throughout the state. Petrie was one of the first professional historians to examine the daily lives of slaves, from where they lived to what they ate and how they worked, as well as their attitudes toward slavery and free blacks. His method was groundbreaking at the time because most white historians dismissed former slave accounts, believing that they were not as reliable as accounts from white people. He knew in 1907 what most other historians would not realize until the 1970s: in order to understand the history of slavery, scholars needed to study the enslaved themselves.
Petrie, George In 1908, Petrie was appointed Dean of the Academic Faculty. When a full graduate program was established in 1922, he became Dean of the Graduate School while at the same time remaining chair of History and Latin and teaching a full load of courses. In 1926, when radio station WAPI began broadcasting from the Auburn campus, Petrie began hosting his own radio program on history and current events.
George Petrie served as a professor and administrator at Auburn for 53 years, until poor health forced him to retire in August 1942. His wife, Mary, died on July 13, 1942, soon after Petrie’s retirement. In November 1943, he wrote “The Auburn Creed,” in which he encapsulated the college’s “spirit.” George Petrie died on September 5, 1947, at age 81; he is buried beside his wife in Pine Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
Donaldson, Anthony. “The Father of Alabama Historians: Professor George Petrie and His Survey of Slavery.” Alabama Review 62 (January 2009): 37-58.
Jernigan, Mike. Auburn Man: The Life and Times of George Petrie. Montgomery, Ala.: The Donnell Group, 2007.
Mattson, Brenda Harper. “George Petrie: The Early Years, 1866-1892.” Master’s thesis, Auburn University, 1983.
Rea, Robert R. History at Auburn: The First One Hundred Years of the Auburn University History Department. Auburn, Ala.: Auburn University Department of History, 1991.