College, Academy streets date to 1800s

buildings downtown education

Traces of old Greenville lurk at unexpected corners.

At Court and South Main streets, for example, where the village's original Court Square was once located, the configuration of the Poinsett Hotel and Soby's pleasant patio were shaped in the 1790s.

McBee Avenue ends at Westfield Street, as it has since Lemuel Alston built his elegant home, Prospect Hill, there about 1797. The obelisk in front of the water system building recalls both that house, later the home of Vardry McBee, and the site of the city's first high school.

For me, however, the most provocative is the busy intersection of Academy and College streets.

Here only the names -- Academy dating from the 1820s, College from the 1850s -- remember Greenville's early history.

One hundred eighty years ago, a block-long path that became Academy Street led from Buncombe Street to the Greenville Academies and their heavily wooded 30 acres on the "northern outskirts" of the village of Greenville Courthouse.

The academies -- one for girls and one for boys -- were chartered by the state in December 1820 and opened in January 1823 in two brick classroom buildings. The first schools in the village, they were funded by residents at the urging of summer visitors.

The first head of the Female Academy was a remarkable Baptist minister, William Bullein Johnson, who believed in educating women and who instructed his students in rhetoric, Latin and Greek, chemistry, geography and history, as well as reading, writing and arithmetic, during their four-year course of study.

The schools' donors, or "subscribers," paid tuition that constituted the income of the principals, who were provided with houses and use of the trees for firewood. A clear spring near the corner of present day Townes Street and Park Avenue provided water.

By the time Johnson moved to Edgefield in 1831, he had established one of the best schools for girls in the New Republic. While his successors were neither as erudite nor as successful as he, together they began a continuing educational tradition for the girls of Greenville.

The Male Academy was less successful until 1837, when trustees hired William Leary, former tutor of Robert E. Lee, as principal. By 1840 the schools were enrolling about 200 students in the summer months, when Lowcountry visitors were in residence, and about 125 during the rest of the year.

Fire destroyed the home of the Female Academy's principal in 1837, and trustees rebuilt it in wood. Academy Street terminated at the house; the Male Academy was located where the Greenville Little Theatre stands today.

By the early 1850s, both schools had fallen on hard times; principals came and went almost annually. When Furman University arrived in 1851, it established preparatory classes, and Male Academy enrollment fell disastrously. The Female Academy, said local attorney and newspaper editor Benjamin Perry, had become "a paltry school."

South Carolina Baptists, pleased with the success of Furman, decided in 1854 to educate their daughters as well as their sons. After acrimonious debate, Academy trustees conveyed the schools' land and trust ("to keep up forever in the village of Greenville Courthouse schools for boys and girls") to the trustees of Furman University.

After an act of the state Legislature, the South Carolina Baptist Convention launched in February 1855 the Greenville Baptist Female College.

Without endowment and rented to its presidents until 1894, the college, initially enrolling 120 students in its primary, preparatory and three-year college program, together with Furman and the new Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made Greenville "the Athens" of the state by the time of the Civil War.

During the war, many Female College students worked with the Ladies Association in Aid of Confederate Volunteers by assisting at a rest home for soldiers established in the old Male Academy building.

The Female College survived Reconstruction by selling 17 acres to pay its debts and struggled through the poverty and hardship of the 1880s through the hard work and inspiring leadership of President Alexander Townes and Lady Principal Mary Judson.

In 1893 the college granted its first B.A. degree (previously students who completed the course of study were "full graduates"; those who did another year's work were Mistresses of Arts.)

The college prospered when Greenville became a textile center. By 1912, its buildings were strung along the north side of College Street from modern day St. George's Greek Orthodox Cathedral to Buncombe Street.

The DeCamp Conservatory, a Mansard-roofed 26-room home, had provided thorough music instruction since 1876. The Female Academy residence, long the home of Alexander Townes, and after his forced resignation in 1894 the Greenville College for Women, was rented for college housing; the extension of Academy Street goes through the property.

Three connected central buildings stood where Heritage Green now stands.

The teens and early '20s were remarkably successful years. No longer connected to Furman and renamed the Greenville Woman's College, it was headed by the Rev. Dr. David Ramsay. He built two new dormitories, repurchased the old Male Academy and converted it into a library and constructed an elegant Fine Arts Building.

But the college was still without endowment, and while Furman was accredited in 1924, G.W.C. did not have the funds required for accreditation. The Great Depression doomed its independent existence.

Between 1933 and 1938 (it was not an easy process because both institutions were deeply in debt) the school became the coordinate Woman's College of Furman University.

It did not, however, abandon College Street until 1961, when the women joined men on the new Poinsett Highway campus. Its buildings were razed to make way for Heritage Green, and Academy Street was extended.

No hint of 140 years of history remains at the intersection. Only the street names tell us that generations of Greenville women were educated at Academy and College.

Judith Bainbridge