Monday, July 22, 2019

Charles Duncan McIver and the Rise of Teachers Institutes in North Carolina

Charles Duncan McIver, president and founder of the State Normal and Industrial School (now UNC Greensboro), had an interest in expanding women’s education which began much earlier than the founding of the college in 1891. His dedication to teaching and his commitment to meeting the challenges of educating women in the post-Reconstruction South began during his college years at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). While at the university, he and his classmates, Edwin Alderman and James Joyner, became aware of the miserable condition of education in their state. The young men discovered that the problems stemmed from citizens’ general indifference toward education and their reticence to fund it with tax dollars. They realized that there needed to be deep changes of attitude, as well as legislation, to truly revolutionized North Carolina education.

Charles Duncan McIver with a group of educators at a Teaching Institute

In addition to these educational challenges, North Carolina faced severe economic issues in the years following the end of the Civil War in 1865. Many of the state’s citizens were impoverished, earning meager livings on small farms. The western part of the state was even worse off than the rest, due to its relatively rural and isolated population. In addition to these considerable financial and logistical obstacles, McIver found the state unwilling to embrace change. The population’s general opposition to taxation and state legislation over regional education made the improvement of the public-school system almost impossible. Funding for education, therefore, was sparse. Those who could afford it attended church-affiliated private schools, and those who could not were left with underfunded public alternatives.

After graduation from the University of North Carolina, McIver and Alderman found teaching positions and quickly gained reputations as leaders in public education in North Carolina. In 1886, McIver became Vice-President of the Teachers’ Assembly and began to openly advocate for educating young women to become teachers and help close the state’s abysmal education gap. He understood that providing women with adequate education would afford them a certain amount of freedom and life choices while also helping improve North Carolina’s educational system. Although his ultimate goal was to establish a teachers’ college supported by tax payers’ money, that dream proved to be ahead of its time. Even though the Teachers’ Assembly supported the idea of a woman’s college, it ultimately failed to pass the state legislature in 1887 and 1889.

Charles Duncan McIver and Edwin Alderman

These legislative efforts, while ultimately failures, featured passionate speeches and debate from McIver and his allies. An accomplished and charismatic orator, McIver made a good case to the General Assembly, stating “Is there any good reason why we should make annual appropriations for the benefit of our sons and disregard this modest and only request that our daughters have ever made in that direction?... Unless some such measure as this is adopted, these girls, and those of coming generations similarly situated, are doomed to live and drudge and die without ever having known the blessing of being independent, and frequently without having ever gone beyond the borders of their own counties.” (1)

Yet despite his arguments, the General Assembly was unwilling to support a public women’s college at that time, although, they did approve week-long teachers’ institutes to be given in each county. These institutes would provide professional training to North Carolina teachers (men and women) and would eventually demonstrate to the legislature - and to the public - that this type of training was needed and appreciated.

Rewarding their commitment and perseverance, McIver and Alderman were chosen by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to create the teacher institutes. To help with this monumental task, they were given the charge to recruit others of like mind and abilities, and they engaged their college friend J. Y. Joyner, as well as other committed educators. The men felt that they were facing an uphill battle against deficient schoolhouses, incompetent teachers, lack of uniformity in textbooks, and parental apathy. (2) Thus, they began the grueling task of traveling to each county, attempting to train the over 5000 public school teachers, focusing on how to organize a class, how to manage students, and how to teach effectively. (3)

They held the teaching institutes for three years and they were extremely popular. This was due, not in small part, to McIver’s strong and charismatic personality. His friend James Joyner described him and “the most irresistible and convincing speaker I ever heard,” and Alderman believed that he was “the most effective speaker for public education that I have known in America.” (4)

State Normal and Industrial School

Finally, in 1891, the legislature approved the creation of the State Normal and Industrial School, which was designed to “prepare young women to earn a livelihood in teaching or in business.” The school opened in October 1892, with McIver as its president and Alderman as a professor of English and History. Joyner came later, becoming the head of the English Department on Alderman’s departure.

(1) The Decennial, Greensboro, NC: State Normal and Industrial School, 1902.
(2) Interestingly, the participating teachers would also be asked to assess the program to improve the “efficiency of the system.” Reports of Conductors of County Institutes in North Carolina; Report of Prof. E. A. Alderman, 1889-1990. Charles Duncan McIver Records, 1855-1906, Box 139.
 (3) Ibid.
(4) Notebook, Lula Martin Mclver Papers, Folder 1, Charles Duncan McIver Records, 1855-1906, Box 139.; Edwin A. Alderman, "The Life and Work of Dr. Charles D. Mclver,” North Carolina Journal of Education, 1 (December 15, 1906): 6.

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