Spencer, Cornelia (Ann) Phillips

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SPENCER, Cornelia (Ann) Phillips

Born 20 March 1825, Harlem, New York; died 11 March 1908, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Daughter of James and Judith Vermeule Phillips; married James Spencer, 1855 (died 1861); children: one daughter

The year after Cornelia Spencer's birth, her family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her father became professor of mathematics at the University of North Carolina. Spencer was educated at home and always felt her education had been inferior to that received by her brothers. For this reason, she was a tireless crusader for women's education later in life. After her husband, an Alabama lawyer, died in 1861, she and her daughter returned to the Phillips home in Chapel Hill.

After the Civil War, Spencer began teaching Latin and Greek to children in the community. To make ends meet, she also tutored, ran a boarding house, painted china, worked for the university, and contributed occasional articles to the newspapers. An offer from the North Carolina Presbyterian to write a column on subjects of her choice at $400 per year provided some measure of financial security.

Spencer used her column to promote her two favorite projects—the restoration of the University of North Carolina and education for women. The university had been closed during the Civil War, and when it reopened it was under the control of a president and professor appointed by the "Carpetbag" Republican government. Spencer not only criticized the politics of the faculty, but their lack of educational qualifications. When the university was reorganized again in 1875, and the Republicans dismissed, Spencer climbed the belfry to ring out the good news. In 1895 the university awarded her an honorary degree for her lifelong devotion, the first ever given to a woman by that institution. Her crusade for better education for women also bore fruit in 1877 when the university opened a summer normal school for girls. Spencer was instrumental in founding the Normal and Industrial School for Women in 1891, which later became the Women's College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

In 1894 Spencer moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to live with her daughter and son-in-law. She wrote her first book, The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina (1866), at the urging of her good friend David L. Swain, president of the University of North Carolina. Swain and former Confederate Governor Zebulon B. Vance offered her access to their private wartime papers to give the work authenticity and accuracy. Called a "Whig review of the War" by the press, The Last Ninety Days is a bitter condemnation of secession and the Confederate leadership. "That North Carolina accepted a destiny which she was unable to control, when she ranged herself in the war for Southern independence, is a fact which cannot be disputed." As a result, the state was left ravaged and penniless by Sherman's invasion, and its people broken in spirit. Spencer firmly believed, as most North Carolinians did, that her state had sent more men to the Confederate army than any other but was the least honored in civil and military appointments. She has only high praise for Governor Vance's attempts to feed and clothe his people, even when his actions violated Confederate law. "Looking back at our delusions, errors, and miscalculations for the four years of the war," she concludes, "the wonder is that the Confederacy lasted as long as it did."

Spencer's second book, Pen and Ink Sketches of the University of North Carolina (1869), first appeared as a series of articles in the Raleigh Standard. Her last book, published in 1888, is a children's history of the state.

Other Works:

First Steps in North Carolina History (1888). Selected Papers of Cornelia Phillips Spencer (edited by L. R. Wilson, 1953).

Cornelia Phillips Spencer's diaries, journals, and letters are in the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina Library in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Chamberlain, H. S., Old Days in Chapel Hill (1926). Russell, P., The Woman Who Rang the Bell (1949).


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