Amanda Hergenrather is a writing major at Eastern Mennonite University interning at the Anacostia Community Museum, helping with research for the forthcoming book: History of Place: Barry Farm/Hillsdale, a Postbellum African American Community in Washington DC, 1867 – 1970. Here Amanda tells the story of the first years of Miss Frances Eliza Hall, a white, missionary teacher in the newly created African American community.
Most of what we know about Frances Eliza Hall as a teacher comes from the monthly reports she kept during her time at Mt. Zion School, where she came to teach midway through her life. Here, Hall began working as a teacher miles away from the comforts of her childhood home in Auburn, NY. Hall, at not quite 40, came to the District an unmarried white women with plans to spend the remainder of her adult life teaching and living in a recently established settlement for newly freed people in Washington, DC. Miss Hall began teaching at the Mt. Zion School in 1867. Her classes started small, and often students were absent, but Hall was positive about the abilities displayed in her students. As time went on, her class sizes grew, no doubt in response to her warm and encouraging teaching style. Hall was fairly radical for a woman of her time. Even if Hall’s church was supportive of her teaching aspirations, as an unmarried, middle-aged woman moving into a community of mostly former slaves, Hall must have had a fair deal of explaining to do to all her friends and family in Auburn, NY. Many must have worried about her safety, but Hall was determined to do what she knew to be right, regardless of the taboo it may have presented to her community. In her time at Mt. Zion School, Frances Hall faced hardships that would have dissuaded less resolved school teachers. Hall was tenacious in her determination to provide an education for the African American children of the Barry Farm/Hillsdale community east of the Anacostia River. She reported that between April and June of 1868, the total amount of students in the first class she taught had increased from 30 to 53, with most students attending regularly. Hall’s hand written reports on her classes each month show her dedication to her students. Though Hall’s June report was positive, and she left for the summer with every intention of returning, come October the Freedman’s Relief Association, which paid Hall’s salary, withdrew its funding, allowing only Hall’s colleague to return to Mt. Zion that year. Thankfully, Hall’s time away from the school was brief, as the Freedman’s Relief Association was persuaded to provide a $20 monthly salary, half what she had been making previously. Hall accepted her old position at half pay, and double the students. During her absence, many students had been sent away “for want of room,” and upon her return the classroom was overflowing once again, with a total of 66 students. It was a trying school year for Hall and her students. In 1869, an outbreak of measles came to the Barry Farm community. In Hall’s monthly report for February, she attributed the “low average attendance compared with enrollment,” to illness among students, which left some out of classes for nearly the entire month. Hall noted that for three days, she herself was too ill to teach. In the next month’s report, Hall notes that a greater part of the month was lost due to her own illness. In June, after returning to health and continuing the semester’s lessons, Hall noted the increase in student attendance, and that the school was filled to repletion, and could scarcely hope to house more students the following year. After her experiences in Mt. Zion School, Hall went to teach at Hillsdale School the second school built at Barry Farm/Hillsdale. One of her students was Georgiana Rose Simpson who would become the second African American woman to obtain a PhD. Hall stayed living in the community after retiring from teaching and nearly until the end of her life. In 1909 she sold her house and moved back to Auburn, NY. She was 82 years old, and would live another 10 years with her brother and his wife. This Women’s History Month we remember Frances Eliza Hall who used her position of privilege as an educated woman with no marital ties to move into a community that some may have considered dangerous, but that she viewed with hope. Frances Eliza Hall left her mark on the lives of the numerous African American children she taught during her time in Barry Farm/Hillsdale. Dedicated and tenacious, she refused to abandon her vocation until she felt her work was done.