His whole come up and until his last days Dr. Frederick Douglass ran with visionary radicals of all tribes, nationalities, ethnicities, genders and faiths.
A lesser-known revolutionary, who we feel most appropriate to recognize during Women’s History Month, is none other than Myrtilla Miner, a local legend in the folklore of Old Washington City.
To keep it funky, Myrtilla Miner was counseled by Dr. Frederick Douglass to pump the brakes on her radical vision to establish a school in Washington City to educate “colored girls” in the early 1850s. Miner disregarded the advice and set up shop in Washington City, protecting her square until her death in 1864.
During his years as a Washingtonian Douglass could never pass Miner’s school without reflecting on its namesake.
You have often urged me to tell you the little (and it is but little) I remember
of Miss Myrtilla Miner, the founder of what is now the Normal School for Colored Girls in the city of Washington. The task is, in every sense, an agreeable one.
If we owe it to the generations that go before us, and to those which come after us, to make some record of the good deeds we have with in our journey through life, and to perpetuate the memory and example of those who have in a signal manner made themselves serviceable to suffering humanity, we certainly should not forget the brave little woman who first invaded the city of Washington, to establish here a school for the education of a class long despised and neglected.
As I look back to the moral surroundings of the time and place when that school was begun, and the state of public sentiment which then existed in the North as well as in the South; when I remember how low the estimation in which colored people were then held, how little sympathy there was with any effort to dispel their ignorance, diminish their hardships, alleviate their suffering, or soften their misfortunes, I marvel all the more at the thought, the zeal, the faith, and the courage of Myrtilla Miner in daring to be the pioneer of such a movement for education here, in the District of Columbia, the very citadel of slavery, the place most zealously watched and guarded by the slave power, and where humane tendencies were most speedily detected and sternly opposed.
It is now more than thirty years (but such have been the changes wrought that it seems a century) since Miss Miner, in company with Joseph and Phebe Hathaway (brother and sister), called upon me at my printing-office in Rochester, New York, and found me at work, busily mailing my paper, the North Star.
It was my custom to continue my work, no matter who came, and hence I barely looked up to give them welcome, supposing the call to be an ordinary one, perhaps of sympathy with my work, or, more likely, an act of mere curiosity, and continued. I was not long permitted, however, to treat my callers in this unceremonious way. I soon found I was in a presence that demanded my whole attention. A slender, wiry, pale (not over healthy), but singularly animated figure was before me, and startled me with the announcement that she was then on her way to the city of Washington to establish a school for the education of colored girls.
I stopped mailing my paper at once,and gave attention to what was said. I was amazed, and looked to see if the lady was in earnest and meant what she said.
“The doubt in my mind was transient. I saw at a glance that the fire of a real enthusiasm lighted her eyes, and the true martyr spirit flamed in her soul. My feelings were those of mingled joy and sadness.
Here, I thought, is another enterprise, wild, dangerous, desperate, and impracticable, destined only to bring failure and suffering. Yet I was deeply moved with admiration by the heroic purpose of the delicate and fragile person who stood, or rather moved, to and fro before me, for she would not accept a chair.
She seemed too full of her enterprise to think of her own ease, and hence kept in motion all the time she was in my office. Mr. and Miss Hathaway remained silent. Miss Miner and myself did the talking. She advocated the feasibility of her enterprise, and I (timid and faithless) opposed in all earnestness. She said she knew the South; she had lived among slave-holders; she had even taught slaves to read in Mississippi; and she was not afraid of violence in the District of Columbia.
To me, the proposition was reckless, almost to the point of madness. In my fancy, I saw this fragile little woman harassed by the law, insulted in the street, a victim of slave holding malice, and, possibly, beaten down by the mob. The fate of Prudence Crandall in Connecticut and the then recent case of Mrs. Douglass at Norfolk were be fore me; also my own experience in at tempting to teach a Sunday-school in St. Michael’s; and I dreaded the experience which, I feared, awaited Miss Miner.
My argument made no impression upon the heroic spirit before me. Her resolution was taken, and was not to be shaken or changed.
The result, I need not say, has justified her determination.
I never pass by the Miner Normal School for Colored Girls in this city without a feeling of self-reproach that I could have said aught to quench the zeal, shake the faith, and quail the courage of the noble woman by whom it was founded, and whose name it bears.
WASHINGTON, May 4, 1883.
Myrtilla Miner: A Memoir (1885)
Bender, Kim. “Myrtilla Miner’s School for African American Girls,” C-SPAN, August 30, 2017,