Myrtilla Miner: The Abolitionist Who Never Gave Up

In honor of Miner's 201st birthday, here are six facts you may not know about this remarkable woman.
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Myrtilla Miner. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Myrtilla Miner. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Myrtilla Miner was born in Brookfield, New York, on March 4, 1815. Though her family had limited means, and she suffered from poor health, she managed to become a teacher. And after witnessing the harsh treatment that enslaved African Americans in Mississippi had to endure, she went on to open a school in Washington, D.C. for black female students. In honor of Miner's 201st birthday, here are six facts you may not know about this remarkable woman.

Wanted to Free Enslaved People

Miner began working at the Newton Female Institute in Whitesville, Mississippi, in 1847. While there, she learned that her employer, Dr. Pharis, had an idea to use northern money to finance the purchase of people held in slavery. Those who'd been bought would then continue to work, but the income they brought in would be placed in a revolving fund that would be used to acquire other slaves. Eventually, the people the fund had purchased would be freed.

Miner initially thought the scheme had potential, and even wrote to abolitionists about it. But she came to accept that it wasn't feasible (it was unlikely the pro-slavery South would've stood by and allowed such an endeavor to proceed). Miner's attention then shifted to educational opportunities. As she wasn't permitted to teach African Americans in Mississippi, she began to think of establishing a school elsewhere for black students.

An "Impracticable" School

Miner left Mississippi in 1848 due to ill health. After recovering, she returned to the idea of teaching black pupils, and began to raise funds to open a school in Washington, D.C. However, Miner found it hard to get support, even from individuals who might've been expected to rally around her.

Frederick Douglass Photo

Frederick Douglass, circa 1874. (Photo: George Kendall Warren / National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia)

Emma Southworth, a writer who supported abolition, wrote to Miner in 1851 to say that people felt her plans were "utterly impracticable." And in an 1883 letter, Frederick Douglass recalled how he'd initially viewed the undertaking: "Here, I thought, is another enterprise, wild, dangerous, desperate, and impracticable, destined only to bring failure and suffering."

One reason for such doubt is that past experience indicated Miner's plans had little chance of success. For example, in 1832 Prudence Crandall had started to enroll African-American women at her school in Canterbury, Connecticut. The next year, the state passed the "Black Law," which declared that out-of-state African-American students needed local permission to attend school there. Crandall was then arrested and had to go through three trials. Though she was ultimately freed on a technicality, her school was attacked by a mob in 1834, so Crandall decided to shut it down.

However, a lack of enthusiastic support didn't deter Miner. In his 1883 letter, Douglass also wrote: "Her resolution was taken, and was not to be shaken or changed."

Why Washington, D.C.

In 1851, Miner's school first opened its doors in Washington, D.C. But why did she decide to open her school in the capital, where slavery was still legal? There were several factors that influenced her decision.

One consideration was that the city's population included approximately 8,000 free African Americans (Miner only enrolled free black students at her school). Another was the fact that no existing laws made it illegal for her to teach these students. And, at the time the school started, Mayor Walter Lenox didn't oppose it (though his attitude would later change).

William H. Seward Photo

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward (Photo: Wikipedia)

In addition, being in the nation's capital meant that there were northerners in town who supported Miner's goals. Some politicians and their families even came to tour the school; visitors included Schuyler Colfax (who would become Ulysses S. Grant's vice president) and William H. Seward.

Faced Unrelenting Hostility

Despite receiving some political support, and seeing enrollment grow from six to 40 soon after the school opened, Miner and her school would often encounter local resistance. For example, it was difficult for her to find a place to live; she wrote at one point, "Many ladies refused to take me to board because I would teach colored girls." The school also had to relocate to new rented locations several times after neighbors objected to its presence.

Miner had purchased a permanent home for the school by 1854, but there were still dangers to face. Until a high fence was built, the school was often stoned, and Miner ended up arming herself with a revolver for protection. And in May 1860, a fire was set at the school, though fortunately Miner awakened in time to save the building (with help from neighbors). As she would note after the attack, "For years I had been expecting this so it did not take me unawares."

Yet even when the school was not physically threatened, there were voices raised against it. When plans for expansion were discussed, Walter Lenox, now the former mayor, wrote a letter of opposition that appeared in the National Intelligencer on May 6, 1857. It stated: "Is it, then, just to ourselves, or humane to the colored population, for us to permit a degree of instruction so far beyond their political and social condition, and which must continue to exist in this as in every other slaveholding community?"

Miner the Feminist

In addition to supporting education for African Americans, Miner was also a feminist. At one point, she wrote that the Constitution placed women in "the same degraded position in regard to liberty as the degraded African."

In her biography of Miner, Ellen O'Connor states, "It is not surprising to learn that one who so passionately believed in education and freedom for the colored race insisted with the same earnestness upon equal rights for woman, in all social and political relations." O'Connor goes on to explain that Miner didn't celebrate the Fourth of July, as she felt that women hadn't been granted true independence. O'Connor also reveals that Miner once wrote a letter in which she shared her belief that women would be enfranchised after black people had been liberated (unfortunately the letter itself was lost).

A Hero With Flaws

Miner worked through fatigue and ill health to start and run her school, and she certainly didn't back down in the face of danger. However, she still had flaws. One former assistant later described Miner as "often severe in her kindness" and "not always patient of spirit" to biographer O'Connor.

Miner could also lack understanding of her black associates' lives, as can be seen in one letter she wrote in 1854. It mentions, "When I reached home I found Emily, on whom I depended for help, just ready to start North to collect funds to buy her brother, who is a slave." (Emily was Emily Edmonson, who'd survived her own ordeal before being liberated from slavery. Though Edmonson's father was a free black man, she and her siblings had inherited their mother's status as a slave.)

Rescuing a sibling from slavery seems like an understandable reason to miss work. But Miner's letter goes on to complain, "I was left with three little boarders to watch over out of school, thirty-five scholars to teach during the day, and all my fall work, fitting up this old house for winter; and it being our first winter in it, it was no small task to bring things into Yankee comfort…."

However, her shortcomings can't erase Miner's accomplishments. Thanks to her actions, many women of color had opportunities to learn that hadn't existed before, and some were able to become teachers themselves. Miner placed her health and safety in jeopardy because she believed everyone had "both a natural right to knowledge and the potentiality for achieving it."