By Jan White
CROCKETT – It would be difficult not to notice the crumbling brick building atop the hill on Highway 19, north of downtown Crockett. Architects might recognize the structure as a four-story, French Second Empire-style building. Long-time residents see it as a reminder of early efforts to provide a quality academic and religious education for the black community. But for those who don’t know its history, the second installment of our Black History Month tribute tells the story of Mary Allen College.
Mary Allen College opened its doors in Crockett, in 1886, thanks to the Board of Missions for Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church and the efforts of Reverand Samual Fisher Tenny. Tenney, a former First Lieutenant in the Confederate Army, began preaching in Crockett at the First Presbyterian Church in 1871.
A year later, dismayed by the lack of education provided to freedmen, Tenney formed the Crockett Presbyterian Church Colored Sabbath School to help educate black children in the area. But Tenney wanted to expand his educational reach. With money donated by members and solicitations of Tenney, a separate church with an academic wing was built, and the school was renamed Moffatt Academy. The program was slow to develop due to indifference, opposition, and the depressed economic circumstances of the times. So when Reverand Tenny saw an advertisement from a northern Presbyterian Church expressing an interest in opening a school in Texas, he contacted Richard H. Allen, Secretary of the Board of Freedman, and invited him to visit Crockett.
Allen, well received by prominent businessmen in the community, was offered a ten-acre plot of land north of the city. Allen’s wife, Mary Esther, was also an advocate of the endeavor and raised awareness and funds for the project. The Women’s Executive Committee of the Board of Missions for Freedman, created in 1884, was led by Mary Allen. It was her belief that “the most permanent progress of a race depended, to a large degree, upon the elevation of its women.” Construction began on the project in early 1886, but Mary passed away before the school could open. Upon her death, the Board agreed that the official name for the school should be Mary Allen Seminary.
The Seminary opened on January 15, 1886, and Mary Allen Hall was completed on October 1, 1887. It began as a girls-only day and boarding school offering primary, elementary, high school, and teacher-level training. By the end of its first year, the school had 46 students. That same year, a four-story, brick building was erected to house students and faculty. Enrollment subsequently increased, and with donations of land and money from Crockett citizens and other benefactors, so did the campus. Only two years after opening, the Seminary had enrolled 152 pupils, with 102 of those students as boarders. By 1889, the school had acquired an additional 300 acres of land and completed Grace McMillan Hall. In 1890, the school listed eight teachers, its President, Reverand J.B. Smith, his wife, and 211 students.
Even though the students were black, the faculty was initially composed of white women. The Seminary’s first three Presidents were also white. It wasn’t until 1924 that the Texas school board appointed the school’s first black administrator, Reverand Burt Randall Smith. At the time, the Seminary had suffered several setbacks. In 1912, its principal dormitory, Grace McMillan Hall, was destroyed by fire. Although a replacement structure was erected shortly after, enrollment declined to thirty-five students. The Seminary’s future looked doubtful. But with Smith’s appointment came a major change to the administration.
Over the next eight years, Smith overhauled the curriculum, developed an all-black faculty, and expanded the library and science facilities. In 1925-26, the high school was accredited by the State Department of Education. Gradually, the lower grades were eliminated. In 1932, the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools certified the institution, and it was renamed Mary Allen Junior College. Enrollment rose to 134 students. In 1933, the administration, observing a severe shortage of education for black men, began allowing male students to enroll.
The college thrived until early 1941, when President Smith’s death and the outbreak of World War II caused a significant loss in enrollment. By 1943, the doors to Mary Allen Junior College had closed. Student records were sent to Harbison Institute and later transferred to Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Caroline, a Presbyterian junior college for black women.
In 1944, the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Texas bought Mary Allen College, and the school returned to operations under the Baptist Church. The first Baptist President to serve was Dr. G. L. Prince. Prince purchased additional library holdings, hired new faculty, organized academics into eight basic departments, and added extra-curricular activities that included a concert choir, social clubs, sports teams, sororities, and honor societies. Mary Allen College became a four-year liberal arts institution.
During the 1950s, several new buildings were constructed, including a men’s dormitory and the first black hospital/clinic in Texas. But the College again suffered a devastating blow. In 1953, Dr. Prince resigned from his duties as President, and soon thereafter, the College lost its accreditation. In 1959, Reverand Jodie C. Sanford attempted to regain certification but failed. The school continued to struggle throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. After years of declining enrollment and insufficient funds to maintain the campus buildings, the Missionary General Baptist Convention chose to permanently close the school’s doors at the end of the 1976-77 academic year, thus ending Mary Allen College’s 91-year history.
In 1978 the Mary Allen Seminary was entered into the National Registry of Landmarks, primarily due to the efforts of local historian Eliza Bishop. A Historical Marker was placed on the grounds of the College, where the administration building of the College remained. In that same year, Mrs. Callie Wynne Bragg stepped onto the scene and began her crusade to save what remained of the campus.
Callie Wynne Bragg was one of Steve and Hattie Wynne’s ten children. Mrs. Bragg attended Crockett Colored High School and graduated from Mary Allen College in 1943. She once reported that out of the forty-three graduates in her class, ninety percent of the students had attended Mary Allen College, primarily “because it was just right there.” Mrs. Bragg founded and was the first President of the Mary Allen Museum. Her goal was to preserve the administration building as a multiethnic arts center and museum that would pay tribute to Mary Allen College’s history.
Although her plan to restore the administration building as a museum has so far gone unrealized, Callie Wynne Bragg’s dream to pay tribute to Mary Allen College remains in the hearts of preservationists and alumni. Currently, headquarters for the Mary Allen Museum of African American Art and History, Inc. are located at 1503 South Fourth Street and houses artifacts that contribute to the legacy and history of Mary Allen College.
On Saturday, February 12, the Mary Allen Museum of African American Art and History will host its Fourth Annual Founder’s Day Celebration. The event will take place at the First Presbyterian Church in Crockett. A free meal will be provided by the Moosehead Café and the Chuck Wagon Restaurant.
Hilliard McKnight is the Event Chair and Community Leader, David Beaulieu is the Master of Ceremonies. The Guest Speaker for the event will be Crockett Mayor Dr. Ianthia Fisher. The Musical Guest is Jaqueline Calhoun, who appeared on the inspiration singing competition, Sunday Best, and recently released her debut EP, Take Control. Reverend Jim Tom Ainsworth will give a historical perspective on Mary Allen College.
Editor’s Note: The Courier would like to thank Dr. Thelma J. Douglass, Mary Allen Museum President, for providing information and photos used in this article.