Monday, June 24, 2013

The Lost Legacy of Philander P. Claxton

Philander P. Claxton
Philander P. Claxton was an important member of the early faculty at the State Normal and Industrial School (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro), yet only a conference room in the Elliott University Center records his legacy.

Born in a log cabin in 1862 in rural Bedford County Tennessee, Claxton’s earliest memories were of the Civil War. The conflict affected his family deeply as he had one uncle fighting for the South and another fighting for the North. His father served on the local school board and Claxton proved himself an advanced student, eventually earning both a bachelor’s degree (1882) and a master’s degree (1887) at the University of Tennessee. He also pursued doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University and at universities in Jena and Leipzig, Germany. Claxton came to State Normal in 1893 to teach pedagogy, and after two years he found himself the head of the department.  His energy, wit, and enthusiasm made him popular with the students, but members of the faculty were jealous of the high regard in which he was held.

The female students were immediately taken with the handsome professor and christened him their “beau ideal.” Many thought him the most attractive man that they had ever seen and wasted no time in casting him in campus plays and productions.  He once famously appeared on stage in a kilt.

During his time at the college, Claxton initiated correspondence courses for students and continuing education sessions for public school teachers. He was also the driving force in the formation of the “practice and observation school” on campus, giving students hands-on experience in the teaching field.  Claxton agreed with the school’s president Dr. Charles McIver in the philosophy that “a normal school without a practice school is like a swimming school without water.” He was so closely associated with this endeavor that there was a great deal of surprise when the new practice school, opened on College Avenue in 1902, was not named after him, but instead named in honor of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, an early supporter of the college.

A passion for promoting interest in public schooling in the South instigated his departure from the State Normal School in 1902 to serve as chief of the Bureau of Investigation and Publication of the Southern Education Board. Subsequently, he held positions at various colleges and public schools, constantly campaigning for improved education for all children. He was considered very progressive for the time, undertaking a survey of black schools and holding several conferences regarding the education of black children. He continued his advocacy for the education of all Americans after his appointment as United States Commissioner of Education by President William Howard Taft, writing the legislation that would authorize rehabilitative education for World War I veterans.

Claxton died at ninety-four and was lauded as a dynamic crusader in the “great educational movement of the South,” yet his legacy on this campus has almost been lost.

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