Women Students in the Summer Normal School at UNC

An Act to Establish Normal Schools. North Carolina General Assembly, 1877.

In the summer of 1877, the University of North Carolina offered classes in the summer for the first time. It wasn’t just a continuation of the regular course offerings: UNC was host to a statewide “Summer Normal School,” providing teacher education to primary school teachers (and aspiring teachers) from around the state.

The Normal School was established by the North Carolina General Assembly in March 1877, allocating $2,000 for the program, which was to be jointly administered by the University and by the North Carolina Board of Education.

The act creating the school specified that it was “for the purpose of teaching and training young men of the white race for teachers of the common schools of the state.” The act also mentioned the possibility of creating a separate school to train African American teachers.

While the UNC administrators did not appear to object to the limitation of the program to white teachers,* they did argue that the school should open its doors to women. In his early history of UNC, Kemp Battle, who was President of the University in 1877, wrote:

 An important question came up at the outset. The Act authorizing the school confined its benefits to male teachers and those desiring to be teachers. It was exceedingly important that females should be included. The Board of Education took the ground and the University concurred, that while the public money could not be paid to females, there could be no objection to their attending the sessions, and they were accordingly invited to take advantage of all the exercises. Their presence contributed much to the success of the school. (Kemp Plummer Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, vol. 2.)

Ad for the Normal School in the Western Sentinel (Winston-Salem), May 31, 1877.

The Hillsborough Recorder reported on the new program on May 30, 1877. The paper called attention to the fact that women would be allowed to attend, writing: “Although the law requires that the moneys paid by the State shall be devoted to the use of males, yet females are cordially invited to attend all the exercises of the school free of charge.”

Of the 235 students enrolled in the six-week program, 107 were women. The presence of women on campus as students was especially significant as it would be another 20 years before UNC admitted its first women students. The inclusion of women was hailed by Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who wrote that she hoped the state would “do as much for her daughters as she has done for her sons.”

The following summer, Emily Coe, a teacher from New York, joined the Normal School faculty, making her the first woman to teach on the University campus. Coe specialized in training kindergarten teachers at a time when formal preschool education was still fairly rare in the United States. Battle thought that Coe’s course in the 1878 Summer Normal School was the first Normal kindergarten class in North Carolina.

Women continued to make up a substantial number of the Summer Normal School attendees each year, and the number of women on the faculty slowly increased.

Education remained a focus of the summer school for decades, but the University gradually began offering courses in other areas. In 1914, summer school classes were able to be counted for credit toward a degree, which led to even more integration with the regular UNC curriculum.

* The Summer School, like the rest of the University, would not be integrated until 1951, when four African American law students enrolled.

Programme for the Closing Exercises of the University Normal School, 1877. UNC Ephemera collection.

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