Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, 1916 The Montgomery Industrial School for Girls was a private K-8 school for African American girls established in 1886 in Montgomery, Montgomery County. The school was founded by Alice White and H. Margaret Beard, two white Christian education reformers from the Northeast, whose aim was to provide an education as well as a sense of pride to their students during a time of racial segregation and to produce teachers who would go on to inspire others. Some of the women who became influential in the civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks, attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls.
White and Beard were members of the American Missionary Association (AMA), an organization of mostly Congregationalist missionaries who ran schools for black children in the South. Before coming to Montgomery, White and Beard worked for AMA schools in Macon and Quitman, Georgia. Some townspeople in Quitman opposed the school’s implied policy of racial equality and openly harassed the teachers and students. The Quitman school burned in 1885 in what appeared to be an act of arson. The town officially denounced the act and asked the AMA to establish another school, which it did in a nearby town.
In 1886, White and Beard left the auspices of the AMA and established the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls. White became the head of the school, and Beard was a member of the faculty. The curriculum at the school stressed strict Christian morality combined with vocational education and academic courses. White required students to dress in uniforms and discouraged them from wearing cosmetics and jewelry and using hair straighteners. She also frowned on dancing and movies. Students attended a daily devotional service at which White also discussed racial equality.
White subscribed to Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington‘s emphasis on vocational education and self-improvement for African Americans, and so students took courses in practical skills, including sewing, cooking, and basic health care. White also believed in promoting strong academic skills and believed that vocational and academic training were of equal importance. The school thus offered courses in writing, reading, and basic mathematics, and eight of the 10 faculty members taught academic courses.
The school quickly earned an excellent reputation among members of Montgomery’s black community and as a result always met its annual enrollment goals. In 1916, for example, the school had an enrollment of 325 students and a faculty of 10 teachers. It operated on an annual budget of $7,500 collected from the small fees that students paid for tuition, uniforms, and books and from northern philanthropic and education foundations such as the Peabody Education Fund. Booker T. Washington also wrote letters soliciting funds for the school. In its 41-year history and despite two major fires, the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls never suffered financial problems.
Discrimination and Segregation
Although the school received uniform praise among African Americans, the region’s white population was not so welcoming during this era of discrimination and segregation. White and her staff were socially ostracized by the white community for their antisegregationist views and teaching methods, and despite their strong emphasis on religion, the school’s employees were never invited to church services at white churches.
White and her staff thus lived secluded lives in a dormitory beside the school but found some solace within the local black community. Despite the strict segregation laws in Montgomery, black churches took turns inviting White and her staff to their services, and parents of students invited the teachers to their homes for dinner. They also escaped the hatred and ostracism of white Montgomery when they returned to their homes in the North during summer breaks.
The Montgomery Industrial School for Girls closed in 1928. By this time the aged and infirm White could no longer effectively administer the school or tolerate criticism from the white community, and no other staff member shared her drive to the degree that she could take over. White returned to her home in Melrose, Massachusetts, and died in 1935 at the age of 80, never seeing how profoundly she had influenced scores of African American women. Indeed Rosa Parks, who attended the school from 1924 to 1929, considered a letter from White, written just before her death, to be one of her prized possessions and a reminder that not all whites were racists.
Former students have praised the school’s high standard of education. In addition, they have spoken highly of the sense of worth instilled in them by the school staff. In her autobiography, Parks, in describing her most important lesson learned at the Montgomery’s Industrial School for Girls, noted “I was a person with dignity and self-respect who should not set my sights lower than anyone else because I was black.” Mahala Dickerson, a former student and Alabama’s first black female attorney, also praised the positive influence that the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls had on her life and career. The school thus played an important role in shaping the lives of a number of women who would help spark the civil-rights movement in Montgomery, the state of Alabama, and the nation.
Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.
Dickerson, M. Ashley. Delayed Justice for Sale. Anchorage, Alaska: Al-Acres, 1998.
Parks, Rosa, with Jim Haskins. My Story. New York: Dial Books, 1992.