Monday, October 15, 2018

Lucy Robertson: Academic and Activist

While Lucy Henderson Owen Robertson (1850 – 1930) was a member of the staff of State Normal and Industrial College (now UNC Greensboro) for only a short time, she made a lasting impression on the college, the city of Greensboro, and education in the South. Robertson was born in Warrenton, North Carolina, but grew up in Hillsborough, attending Miss Nash and Kollock’s School for Young Ladies, then Chowan Baptist Institute (now Chowan University). Robertson liked to tell the story of when, as a young girl, she visited a palmist who told her fortune. When the woman read her palm, she said that Robertson’s heart and head line were parallel, and it was hard to tell which was longer. She determined at an early age, that it was her heart line.


Lucy Robertson

In 1869, she married Dr. David A. Robertson and moved with him to Greensboro, raising two sons. Perhaps unusual for women of her time, she had a career in academics.  In 1875, she took a position at Greensboro Female College (now Greensboro College) as an assistant in the Literary Department, then head of the English Language and Literature Department. She became a widow at thirty-three years of age and dedicated the rest of her life to teaching.


In 1893, Robertson was enticed to accept a position at the State Normal to teach in the Department of English and History. When the school opened in 1892, this was a combined department, but it was eventually split into separate areas and Robertson became the head of the newly established Department of History. The fact that she was made department head reflects college president Charles Duncan McIver’s willingness to hire women for important positions. McIver may have also liked the fact that she was a native of North Carolina. During the early years, the College took pride in recruiting its professors from the South, specifically North Carolina.



State Normal Faculty, ca. 1893. Lucy Robertson is on the far right




 Described as “tall and graceful, well educated, well-traveled, and vitally interested in people,” Robertson was an immediate favorite with the students of State Normal. She developed a curriculum for the History Department that stressed a “familiarity with the great names and events” and a chronological sense of history. She particularly emphasized Greek and Roman history, medieval history, English history, and U.S. history. The Department used textbooks in all classes, but also encouraged “topical study, parallel reading, and independent research in a library.”



Robertson only taught seven short years at the State Normal before returning to Greensboro Female College in 1900 to accept the position of Lady Principal, and then President. In fact, she became the first woman to hold the office of college president in the state and in the South. She remained President until 1913, when she made the decision to return to teaching. Robertson also spent time traveling both in the United States and overseas, visiting eleven countries.


Annual History Department Report written by Lucy Robertson, 1898

In 1917, as the country began to mobilize for World War I, Robertson was appointed to the Executive Council of the North Carolina Division of the Woman’s Committee.  Specifically, she was chosen as Chair of Child Welfare.  She was considered to have the credentials and experience to be an effective state representative and the connections to recruit students and faculty from North Carolina’s well-established network of women’s colleges for war work.

Robinson was also involved in spheres beyond academics, becoming involved in many organizations and president of the Western Conference of the Women's Foreign Missionary Societies, the United Society of Foreign and Home Missions, and a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Woman's Club of Greensboro.

In her later years, she continued to work, teaching “Bible and Religious Education” at Greensboro Female Academy until a few days before her death in May of 1930. She died in the infirmary of Greensboro College. She was buried in Green Hill Cemetery, Greensboro.

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