How a system of education was developed in early Alabama Part III – written by the first Superintendent

(Continued from Part II How a system of Public education developed in early Alabama Part III -The author Gen. William F. Perry was the first superintendent of education in Alabama)

The steps taken to organize a system of education in Alabama for the first time




Gen. William F. Perry,1 of Bowling Green, Ky.

Written 1898

(Transcription from Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society, Volume 2, 1898)

Part III


After setting my office in order, I opened correspondence with the Judges of Probate, asking them to order elections of trustees in the townships and to instruct them, when elected, to ascertain and report the number of youth of school age in their respective townships. It was explained that such reports constituted the only data obtainable for the apportionment of the money set apart for the support of schools; and that under the law, the apportionment must be made before the establishment of schools could be authorized.

All this seemed very simple; and I was ignorant enough to expect that the work could be accomplished in the course of two or three months at farthest. But unexpected difficulties were encountered.

One-room schoolhouse in Clarke County, Alabama. ca. 1910 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Notices failed

Quite a number of the Judges of Probate paid no attention to my request, and it was not found out until after great delay. Many of them who earnestly endeavored to do their duty found it difficult to reach the townships. Circulars could not be addressed to townships which had no organization and no legal representative. Notices in the county papers often failed, while in many counties no paper was published. And then, there was the inertia of ignorance, the difficulty of getting masses of uninformed people out of the ruts in which they have been moving for generations.

To the people of more than one-third of the State, the township as a corporation, or as a body politic of any kind, was unknown. The very boundaries had faded from their minds and memories with the disappearance of the marks made on the forest trees by the surveyors who had located them. To reach these large masses of people, induce concerted action in tracing out their long-forgotten boundaries and in organizing themselves into corporations, was a task the difficulty of which no one had anticipated, and which was accomplished at last by dint of hammering.

It is easy to see that the almost fatal weakness was found in the county administration. Duties which would have employed the whole time of officers chosen for the purpose, and paid for their services, were unwisely, and unjustly, imposed upon men who were already busy, and who found it necessary either to neglect the new duties for which they received no compensation, or the duties which they were elected and paid to perform.

There can be no question that energetic officers, employed for the purpose, and paid for their services, by personal visits to the townships, could, in six or eight weeks, have accomplished a task that had required as many weary months. It is but just to say that no difficulty occurred in the counties whose townships had maintained their school organization.

School room under stairs at Cotton Mill (Photograph by Hines dec. 1913, Library of Congress)


It was late in the Fall before complete returns were received, and the apportionment was begun. In the absence of any specific direction of law, the distribution was made by giving to the townships that had nothing, and adding to those that had little, until the appropriation was exhausted, leaving those whose school revenue exceeded the average thus produced simply to retain what they had.

The appropriation thus distributed yielded a per capita of one dollar and thirty-three cents. It seemed meager enough, and was a great disappointment to many who persisted in cherishing the illusion, which I had vainly striven to dispel, that there was to be a mammoth system of schools wholly supported by the State.


A statement was sent to each Judge of Probate showing the amounts to which the townships of his county would be entitled. They were accompanied with circulars of advice and instruction to the trustees in reference to the establishment of schools.

The preparation of these instructions cost me much anxious thought. While such a course seemed to have been contemplated by the law, I felt that it would have a dwarfing effect upon the system, and upon the minds of the people to fall into the habit of employing teachers for only such time as the public money would last; and was anxious, at the beginning, to give such direction to the State appropriation that it would stimulate, rather than suppress, the spirit of self-help in the people. The trustees were therefore advised to authorize teachers whom they approved to raise their own schools by subscription, the patrons being responsible to the teacher for the tuition, at specified rates, of the pupils subscribed, and the trustees engaging to use the money under their control, as far as it would go, in discharging the liability of the patrons.

All this seemed bungling enough; but to my mind it had several advantages; 1st, it would avoid all danger of complaint that the trustees had imposed upon the people a teacher who was not acceptable; 2nd, It put all the parties upon a method of procedure with which they were already familiar; 3rd, It showed them that the State had not proposed to relieve them of all expense and responsibility in the education of their children, but to guide and assist them in the performance of a duty which they could never abdicate.

1 William F. Perry, son of Hiram and Nancy (Flake) Perry, was born in Jackson County, Ga., 1821. He was largely self-taught; and was in charge of a high school in Talladega, 1848 to 1853. He was admitted to the bar in 1854, and in February of the same year was chosen Superintendent of Education. This position he resigned in 1858, and returned to the school room as head of the East Alabama College at Tuskegee. In 1862 he enlisted in the Confederate Army, and became Major of the 44th Alabama. (See sketch of this Regiment by J. J. Garrett infra.) He became successively Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel and Brigadier General. He was a brave and fearless soldier, and splendid official and executive. In 1867 he removed to Ky., where he has since resided, engaged in teaching. He married a daughter of George P. Brown, whose wife was a daughter of Thomas Chilton, Esq. For sketch see Garrett’s Public Men in Ala.p. 595; and Brewer’s Alabama, p. 343-4. The latter gives his military record.

Mr. Perry had preserved all important papers accumulated during his term of his office, but unfortunately they were destroyed during the Civil War. Hence, residing in a distant State, he was compelled to rely almost entirely upon memory in the preparation of this paper.


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