Lucy Laney

(WOMENSENEWS)–Rev. David Laney, Presbyterian minister and skilled carpenter of Macon, Ga., had bought his freedom from slavery in the 1830s and his wife’s freedom on their marriage. By the time his daughter Lucy, seventh of the couple’s 10 children, was born in 1854, the Emancipation Proclamation was still 11 years in the future.

In spite of social and legal prohibitions, Lucy learned to read by the time she was 4.

In the aftermath of the official end of slavery, education for black people, young and old, became a national concern. The federal government established the Freedman’s Bureau to oversee schooling in the south and Lucy Laney was an immediate beneficiary. She attended a high school run by white missionaries and then, at 15, the new Atlanta University. In 1873, she was in its first graduating class.

Along with many of her peers, Laney believed that educating black women was critical so that they could, as she said in a speech later in the century, “change a whole community and starts its people on the upward way.”

Determined to Run a School

After a decade teaching in various public schools in Georgia, she settled in Augusta, determined to have her own school. In the basement of a Presbyterian Church, she assembled her first six students and designed an ambitious curriculum that included Latin, algebra, chemistry, physics, job training and community service.

More students came, and by 1885, with 234 students, to raise funds for expansion, Laney traveled to the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in Minneapolis and made an impassioned plea. No church money was available. Soon afterward, however, Francine E.H. Haines, president of the women’s department of the church, sent a contribution and became Laney’s advocate and supporter. The school was named the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute and remained true to its mission of excellent secondary education for black children for nearly 70 years.

By the time Laney died in 1933, she had not only set a standard for schools and for her community by promoting the first black kindergarten in Georgia and the first nurses’ training school for girls, but had directly influenced people like Mary McCloud Bethune. The close friend and advisor of Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, founder of what became Bethune-Cookman College, had been inspired by a year teaching at the Haines School. She was even more inspired by the visionary Laney, rightfully known as “the Mother of the Children of the People.”

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected]