Parrish, Celestia (1853–1918)

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Parrish, Celestia (1853–1918)

American educator. Name variations: Celeste Parrish. Born Celestia Susannah Parrish on September 12, 1853, on a plantation near Swansonville, Pittsylvania County, Virginia; died on September 7, 1918, in Clayton, Georgia; daughter of William Perkins Parrish (a plantation owner) and Lucinda Jane Walker; graduated from Roanoke Female Institute (later Averett College), 1876; graduated from Virginia State Normal School (later Longwood College), 1886; studied mathematics and astronomy at the University of Michigan, 1891–92; attended summer sessions at Cornell University, 1893–95, and received Ph.B., 1896; attended summer sessions under John Dewey at the University of Chicago, 1897–99; never married; children: one adopted daughter.

Taught in Danville Public Schools (1874–83), at the Roanoke Female Institute (1884), Virginia State Normal School (1886–91), and the Randolph-Macon Woman's College (1892–1902); founded an alumnae association at Randolph-Macon; served as professor of pedagogic psychology and head of the department of pedagogy at the Georgia State Normal School (1902–11); served as Virginia state president and national vice-president of Association of Collegiate Alumnae; founded and served as first president of the Southern Association of College Women (1903); served as first president of Georgia's Mothers and Teachers Cooperative Club; worked on behalf of the public schools in the South as the state supervisor of rural schools for the North Georgia District (1911–18).

Celestia Parrish was born in 1853 on a plantation in antebellum Virginia, the first of her parents' three children. She early displayed a strong intellect, which her wealthy father encouraged. The Civil War, however, soon wiped out the schools in her area, and claimed the lives of her parents as well. Parrish and her younger brother and sister were placed under the guardianship of an uncle and two maiden aunts. When she was 15, her uncle died, and her aunts soon made it known that they wished to be relieved of their obligation to their niece. Therefore, with little formal education of her own, the 16-year-old took a job teaching in the rural schools of Pittsylvania County, where she had been born.

She worked for five years in the rural schools, with little success at first. After she was inspired by a book on pedagogy, Parrish vowed to become a better teacher, and eventually became well known locally as an excellent instructor. As a result, she received an invitation to teach in the public schools of Danville, Virginia, where she stayed for nine years. During this period, Parrish supported herself and her sister while they attended the Roanoke Female Institute. She earned her diploma in 1876, and went on to study for a summer at the University of Virginia, which at the time would not admit women to study during regular sessions.

After resigning from the Danville schools in 1883, Parrish taught for a year at the Roanoke Female Institute before enrolling as a student at the Virginia State Normal School. When she graduated in 1886, she accepted on offer to teach mathematics at the school. However, Parrish's desire to become a "cultivated woman," as she described it, soon led her to develop a plan to study at "a great university" in the North. She left for the University of Michigan in 1891, where she studied mathematics and astronomy for a year. Upon her return to Virginia, Parrish accepted a position at the newly founded Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, an institution committed to making higher education accessible to Southern women.

While at Randolph-Macon, Parrish was required to teach psychology, a field in which she had little experience. Not one to let a lack of formal training restrain her, in 1893 she enrolled in a summer session at Cornell University, where she met eminent experimental psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener. She returned to Randolph-Macon in the fall and established what was probably the first psychology lab in the South. Parrish continued her studies at Cornell during the next two years, and published a paper, "The Cutaneous Estimation of Open and Filled Spaces," in the January 1895 issue of the American Journal of Psychology. At age 42, she met her longstanding goal of achieving a college degree when she graduated from Cornell in June 1896 with a Ph.B.

During the following three summers, Parrish studied at the University of Chicago under progressive educator John Dewey. After observing his Laboratory School, she was eager to bring Dewey's methods of education to the South. Therefore, she left Randolph-Macon in early 1902 to become the professor of pedagogic psychology and the head of the department of pedagogy at the Georgia State Normal School (now George Peabody College of Education at the University of Georgia). Impressed by her ideas, philanthropist George Foster Peabody granted $10,000 for the establishment of Muscogee Elementary School. This school served as a sort of laboratory for Parrish's work, which included training hundreds of teachers in such progressive educational methods as doing away with traditional divisions between subjects and involving parents in cooperative relationships with the school. It was during this time that Parrish became the first president of the statewide Mothers and Teachers Cooperative Club, and helped establish a parent-teacher association in Georgia.

Parrish's dedication to her own higher education motivated her to make that goal more accessible for other women. She worked to open educational opportunities for women by publishing a series of writings arguing for the admission of women to Southern universities and for more support of existing women's colleges. As the state president and national vice-president of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later the American Association of University Women), she worked to improve the quality of education available to women and in 1903 founded the Southern Association of College Women to further that purpose. A Baptist, Parrish was also involved in religious organizations, including missionary societies, the Young Christian Women's Association (YWCA), and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

Parrish resigned her post at Georgia State Normal School in 1911 to accept an appointment as the state supervisor of rural schools for the North Georgia District, a very poor area which encompassed over 2,400 schools in 48 counties. She embraced the challenge of overseeing more than 3,800 teachers in a locale that did not value education and provided very few, if any, tax dollars for that purpose. She continued in this post for the rest of her life, visiting every single county at least once a year, organizing teachers' institutes, and acting as an advocate of schools to public officials.

Celestia Parrish never married, but adopted a daughter, and took over the care of her brother's two sons. She died in 1918, just five days before her 65th birthday, in her home in Clayton, Georgia. The monument on her gravesite at the Clayton Baptist Church honors her as "Georgia's Greatest Woman."


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.

Maria Sheler Edwards , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan