Each month, Curator’s Corner welcomes a Tennessee State Museum curator to offer insight and interpretation on Museum artifacts and their connection to Tennessee history.
By Miranda Fraley Rhodes, Ph.D.
From 1851 to 1896, Winchester, Tennessee in Franklin County was home to Mary Sharp College (MSC), a remarkable school for young women. During these decades, many people believed theories about women being intellectually inferior to men, and most universities did not admit female students. Pioneering educators at women’s colleges challenged these ideas.
Carte-de-visite photograph, Mary Sharp College, 1851 to 1880, Tennessee State Museum Collection (2003.34.1.16)
Mary Sharp, for whom MSC was named, was both a substantial donor and an unusual woman for her time. A letter from her great niece and namesake Mary Sharp Mullins written in 1925 and published by the Mary Sharp College Club told of Sharp’s story. She was a widow from the Winchester area who, upon the death of her husband, freed the enslaved persons she inherited and funded their immigration to Liberia. She then used part of her fortune to benefit MSC. Her great niece maintained that there was a connection between Sharp’s decision to free enslaved persons and to help fund MSC. According to Mullins, Sharp “gave the bequest out of which, as a nucleus, the Mary Sharp College grew…evincing her profound belief in freedom,” which included freedom for “the minds of women.”
The Mary Sharp College Club documented the efforts of Dr. Z.C. Graves, who served as the president of MSC for most of its history. He and other MSC leaders asserted that female students should study the same subjects as male students like Greek, Latin, and trigonometry as well as music and art. Graves declared that “an educated mind has so many resources within itself, it has not to depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” MSC’s curriculum was modeled on the course of study at elite eastern male schools like Brown University and offered more rigorous academic coursework than most colleges for women during this era. MSC served more than four thousand young white women during its years in operation.
MSC’s association with the Baptist Church informed the college’s emphasis on faith and provided the school with an important network of support. Religious denominations played key roles in developing many colleges for women and for men. At a MSC commencement address in 1856, the Reverend J.M. Pendleton stated, “Nothing is more tyrannical than custom….One reprehensible custom may properly engage our attention—the neglect of female education.” Pendleton attributed the growth of educational opportunities and improvements in women’s status to the influence of religion.
Photograph, Mary Sharp College, by Henry W. Krotzer, Jr, 1951, Tennessee State Museum Collection (2005.114.15)
MSC was a valued part of the Winchester community. Local newspapers reported on the achievements of MSC students. The college, which also included departments for younger students, held public examinations attended by townspeople and other spectators at the close of the fall and spring semesters. An article in The Winchester Appeal on June 21, 1856, related “The class in Latin Grammar did, for themselves and their teacher, (Mrs. Graves) much credit—rather, it cannot be denied that the class excels the majority of Latin Grammar classes, whether male or female.” The Winchester Home Journal reported on June 17, 1880, that the students performed exceedingly well on their trigonometry examination and in other subjects and concluded “the entire exercises up to date have given additional and more splendid evidence than ever of the value of Mary Sharp College, and we congratulate the entire Faculty on their success. Winchester certainly has reason to be proud of her schools.”
Letter from Catherine Ann “Kittie” Taylor to her mother, Eliza Graham Taylor, December 4, 1870, Tennessee State Museum Collection (2021.13.334)
Students from throughout the South, including many from Tennessee, attended MSC. Most resided in boarding houses and experienced the excitement and trials of living away from home. In December 1870, Catherine Ann “Kittie” Taylor wrote to her mother Eliza Graham Taylor to thank her for a sending a box with new clothes. She explained, “everything was very nice indeed and pleased me exactly. I think my hat is very pretty. Both of my dresses fit nicely. The little cloak was made different than the other girls. I like it better because it is.” In this letter, she also expressed that she looked forward to returning home to Russellville, TN in Hamblen County after the spring school term.
On August 29, 1867, the Fayetteville Observer published an essay by MSC student Marie Landess on the front page of the newspaper at the request of several individuals from Lincoln County. Her essay “Let Each for Each a Beacon Be” argued “who knows but each and every one of us, humble though we be, might prove an instrument of good.” This sentiment reflected the philosophy of MSC and its goals for students. Although Mary Sharp College was forced to close in 1896 in the midst of an economic depression, according to Tara Mitchell Mielnik, MSC served many students, awarded at least 350 bachelor’s degrees, and provided alumnae with the foundation for distinguished careers in education and other fields.
Miranda Fraley-Rhodes, Ph.D. is the Assistant Chief Curator of the Tennessee State Museum
Landess, Marie. “Let Each for Each a Beacon Be.” Fayetteville Observer, August 29, 1867, p. 1. Available online at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Mary Sharp College Club of Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Z.C. Graves and the Mary Sharp College, 1850-1896. Published about 1925. Available at Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Mielnik, Tara Mitchell. “Mary Sharp College.” In Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Edited by Carroll Van West. Tennessee Historical Society, 2018. Available online at https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/mary-sharp-college/.
Mullins, Mary Sharp to Nora. December 8, 1925. In Mary Sharp College Club of Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Z.C. Graves and the Mary Sharp College, 1850-1896, published about 1925. Available at Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Pendleton, J.M. “Address on Female Education, Delivered at the Commencement of Mary Sharp College, Winchester, Tenn., June 22, 1856.” Graves, Marks & Rutland, 1856. Available at Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Taylor, Catherine Ann “Kittie,” to her mother, Eliza Graham Taylor. December 4, 1870. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 2021.13.334.
The Winchester Appeal, June 21, 1856, p. 2. Available online at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
The Winchester Home Journal, June 17, 1880, p. 3. Available online at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.