Miner, Myrtilla (1815–1864)

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Miner, Myrtilla (1815–1864)

American educator and pioneer in education for African-American girls . Born on March 4, 1815, near Brookfield, New York; died on December 17, 1864, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Seth Miner (a farmer) and Eleanor (Smith) Miner.

Growing up in central New York in a large farm family, Myrtilla Miner displayed an early enthusiasm for learning, and picked hops to earn money for books despite suffering from a debilitating spinal disorder. Her unmarried aunt Ann Miner taught a private school in their family home, which may have inspired Myrtilla to become a schoolteacher herself. Her formal education began at the Female Domestic Seminary in Clinton, New York, but with her painful spinal treatments she could not endure the manual labor required by the school's program. In 1840, she transferred to the Clover Street Seminary in Rochester, New York. After completing her education she taught there for a year in 1844, and then taught at the Richmond Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, from 1845 to 1846.

In 1847, she transferred to the Newton Female Institute in Whitesville, Mississippi. There, she was shocked by the condition of the slaves and sought to conduct classes for young African-American girls. When her idea was refused (teaching slaves to read and write was frowned upon in the South, and in some Southern states it was illegal) she returned to New York, where she briefly taught in the town of Friendship in 1849. That same year, at a friend's home, she met two abolitionists who encouraged her to open a school for African-Americans in Washington, D.C. Receptive to the idea after her experiences in Mississippi, she was also encouraged by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and by a $100 contribution from Ednah Thomas , a Quaker philanthropist. Such undertakings had brought persecution upon those who had attempted them in the past (See Prudence Crandall), and even African-American abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass advised against it. But the "slender, wiry, pale (not over healthy), but singularly animated" Miner, as Douglass described her, went to Washington, D.C., rented a room, and opened the Colored Girls School on December 3, 1851.

"Many ladies refused to take me to board because I would teach colored girls, and much else of obloquy and contempt have I endured because I would be about my Master's business. I heed it not, though I am to-night informed that the new mayor will abolish all colored schools. I care not," Miner wrote to a friend some six months after establishing her school. Despite local opposition which eventually forced three moves over two years and had Miner waving a pistol to fend off angry crowds, the school's initial enrollment of six had grown to forty in two months, and it had many ardent supporters, particularly among Quakers. Hundreds of visitors came to tour this extraordinary educational institution, including the family of President Franklin Pierce. Harriet Beecher Stowe donated $1,000 of her royalties from Uncle Tom's Cabin to it. In 1856, the school came under the care of trustees, including Henry Ward Beecher and Johns Hopkins. Its prosperity drew even more opposition, as in 1857 when a former Washington mayor attacked it. Nevertheless, driven by her fundamental belief in the need for the abolition of slavery, which she considered "a vast increasing evil," Miner continued to run the school with creativity and fastidiousness. She assembled a library of 1,500 books, and brought scholars in to give lectures. She encouraged activities such as nature study, gardening, and astronomy. Physical fitness and hygiene were stressed. Students were taught a full scope of academic subjects and domestic skills, but the school's focus was on training teachers—by 1858 six former students were teaching at their own schools.

Throughout her career Miner's health problems had hindered her and forced her to take periodic leaves. By the late 1850s, others such as Emily Howland and Lydia Mann (Horace Mann's sister) were running the school, yet Miner constantly promoted it wherever she went, collecting funds, books, and equipment. Despite these efforts, her illness and the Civil War forced the school to close in 1860, and she went to California seeking to improve her health. There she earned a living as a clairvoyant and magnetic healer, both of which were gaining in public fascination at the time. In 1863, her supporters in Congress were successful in gaining the school a charter as the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, but Miner did not live to see it reopened. In 1864, she was thrown from a carriage in Petaluma, California, and, shortly after a long journey back to Washington that year, she died of tuberculosis probably exacerbated by her injuries.

After the Civil War, the school she had founded was renamed the Miner Normal School, and as such ran intermittently until 1879, when it was incorporated into the Washington, D.C., public school system. It was renamed the Miner Teachers College in 1929, and in 1955, following the outlawing of school segregation in the United States, it was merged with another school to form the District of Columbia Teachers College. Though her name is gone from the school, Myrtilla Miner is remembered for her steadfast vision, reason, warmth, and courage.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

suggested reading:

O'Connor, Ellen. Myrtilla Miner: A Memoir, 1885.


The Myrtilla Miner Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Jacquie Maurice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada