Stephens College. Educating Women Since 1833.
It’s a tagline we use a lot around here. In fact, it’s stamped at the end of many of our email signatures, including mine.
It’s catchy and powerful. I mean, we’re talking 180 years of educating women. That’s pretty impressive.
But is it true…
One local man took to social media yesterday to express his doubts about our founding year.
“@stephenscollege Your college was founded in 1856, not 1833. Please correct that error. Look at the 58th and 59th annual catalogs.” @Jack65203 tweeted. I also happen to be Facebook friends with this fellow and he shared his doubts there, too.
Being fiercely loyal to this place, I went on the defensive. But after some back and forth, I thought I’d better be double checking my facts.
I’m still part reporter and will always believe in being accurate and honest.
So I went to my trusty source for all things Stephens. “Stephens: A Story of Educational Innovation” by John Crighton is a really detailed account of Stephens’ history. And following each chapter are pages and pages of citations, so I know the guy did his homework.
So here’s the skinny from Crighton’s research.
The first session of the Columbia Female Academy began in the fall of 1833. It spanned grade levels, although Crighton couldn’t find a breakdown of enrollment by age. He writes about juniors and seniors, though, and outlines courses such as botany, psychology, ancient and modern geography and theology, as well as the core subjects. Courses over the following years were taught by professors, he tells us.
The Columbia Female Academy would not be highly rated by modern standards, Crighton wrote. But, he added, the academy “had the distinction of being the first institution of higher education in Columbia.”
After the academy failed to reopen in 1855, a local group launched a movement that would establish Columbia Baptist Female College. Crighton tells us they opted not to use the academy’s building because the group wanted to expand the school. The group, by the way, included some of the same people who were on the academy’s board. In fact, Moss Prewitt purchased the first piece of property for the campus. Prewitt had been on the academy’s board, as well.
The group opted to reopen the school as a college only and not open it to lower grades because they knew the state was getting ready to start a public school system, Crighton wrote.
A side point about higher education of the day: In rural America in the 1930s, a lot of farm children weren’t expected to go to school past 8th grade. So imagine the lack of expectations 100 years earlier. What constituted “higher” education in 1833 probably wouldn’t be today’s standards. So, while I’m not sure what levels the Columbia Female Academy taught, they were certainly higher than many young women were reaching at the time.
Columbia Baptist Female College was chartered in 1856, just a year after the academy closed. And that’s a date Stephens College was using as its founding year until 1933. According to Crighton, the college decided to revise the date based on testimony from Boone County scholars and historians. E.W. Stephens, for instance, declared in 1869 that the Columbia Female Academy “was merged into the Baptist Female College.” William Switzler wrote in his History of Boone County that the Baptist College replaced the Columbia Female Academy. Judge North Todd Gentry, Crighton says, was a historian who declared Stephens College to be a successor of the Columbia Female Academy. And, finally, Crighton writes: “Many of the Baptist and Presbyterian families which had supported the academy transferred their patronage to the Baptist College.”
The college became Stephens after James Stephens pledged $20,000 to the institution in the 1870s.
So the crux of the question is whether Stephens can claim to have evolved from the female academy. I suppose one could argue it both ways.
If the same people were involved and were able to open the college just one year after the academy closed, it’s pretty obvious to me that the Columbia Baptist Female College was established to replace the academy. Essentially, the same group of people reopened Columbia Female Academy as Columbia Baptist Female College.
I’ll let local historians battle it out from here, but I’m convinced that leaders of the college in1933 were right to correct the founding year.
And I’ll continue touting—accurately and honestly—that Stephens College has been educating women since 1833.