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Sketch of Bethania by Miss Emma Lehman shows, left to right, the 1807 church, the 1770 Geminhaus (later removed to make way for the parsonage), and the first house in Bethania (1759) built by Gottfried Grabs.

Emma Augusta Lehman was born in 1841 in Bethania, NC to Eugene C. and Amanda Sophia Butner Lehman. Her father operated a general store and owned one slave, a man in his 40s. Her parents were both readers and her father was a member of the county school board and an election judge. Emma was a brilliant child, with wide ranging interests. When she had finished what schooling was available in Bethania, she was sent to the Salem Female Academy at age 13, completing the course there three years later, in 1857.

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Miss Emma’s father ran a general store in Bethania. After his death in 1856, his son took over, eventually forming a partnership with the Kapp family.

Beverly Jones was a country doctor who had married the daughter of the wealthiest man in Bethania, Abraham Conrad. Even though she was only 16, Doctor Jones persuaded Emma to take over the school near his plantation. Some of Emma’s students were older than she was. She was a tiny woman, so most of them were taller as well. But she had an innate talent for teaching and discipline, so things went well. A few years later, one of her uncles persuaded her to switch to his school in Mt. Airy.

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John Benjamin Chitty’s headstone in the Bethania Moravian God’s Acre

Meanwhile, Emma had gotten to know a young man who worked as a clerk for her father. At some point, she became engaged to marry John Benjamin Chitty. She had a plan…she would marry Benjamin, teach until they had children, then live in the bosom of her family in her hometown…Benjamin would join her brother in running the store…and they would all live happily ’til death did them part. But that plan fell apart before the wedding bells could sound, on August 30, 1863, when Benjamin suddenly died. We do not know the cause of death. Some sources have claimed that he was killed in the Civil War, but there is no record of his having served in the Confederate army.

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Salem Female Academy, 1858

Devastated, Emma cut her dark curly hair short, moved into the Single Sisters house in Salem and joined the faculty of the Salem Female Academy in the fall of 1864. She was 23 years old. From that moment until her death 58 years later, she was married only to the Academy and the hundreds of girls who would become her proteges.

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This 1856 photograph shows five members of the Salem Female Academy faculty. Left to right, with years served: Elizabeth Chitty (1856-78), Louisa Herman (1849-60), Olivia Warner (1844-56), Theophilia Welfare (1852-63) and Maria Vogler (1853-82). Sisters Chitty and Vogler were still around when Miss Emma arrived.

From the start, Emma taught a wide range of courses. Her principal interest was literature, but she would also teach botany, astronomy, general sciences, philosophy and other subjects, while also serving for a time as the Academy’s part time librarian. But her greatest influence would be instilling the spirit of what it meant to be a Salem girl.

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In 1864, the Academy consisted chiefly of two buildings, the original building, begun in 1803 and completed in 1805, and the newer building, begun in 1854 and completed in 1856. At the time, they were known simply as “the old Academy” and “the new Academy”. By the time Emma retired in 1916, so many new buildings had been built that that nomenclature no longer worked and the the original buildings had been renamed South Hall and Main Hall.

The curriculum in 1864 was what might be called “domestic science”…cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening, handwriting and general household management…in other words, a course in how to get married. Even then, it maintained a high degree of expectation, and many of the girls learned how to teach and so did not immediately marry, ending up teaching in town and country schools or cycling back into the Academy faculty. But at some point, one or more of the girls must have said “Maybe I don’t want to get married. Maybe I don’t want to teach. Maybe I want to go into the business world. Maybe I want to learn how to be independent.” That led to the establishment of the business curriculum, which quickly became one of the most popular areas. There the girls learned bookkeeping, stenography, telegraphy, business law and how a business actually worked…skills that would allow them to escape the need to marry just any old body and wait until the right man came along. Maybe even to create their own businesses and become entirely independent of the status quo. That was certainly a radical idea.

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The first certificate awarded by the Academy, October, 1807

For over seventy years, the Academy never granted any kind of diploma, just certificates of attendance. The classes were arranged by years, from youngest to oldest. A girl who finished the course had the equivalent of a middle school education. But after the Civil War, higher classes were organized. In 1878, a senior class was created, and for the first time, high school level diplomas were awarded. But most importantly, Miss Emma Lehman was put in charge of the senior class, permanently. Once that happened, nothing would ever be the same at the Salem Female Academy.

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The Academy, 1877. Inspector’s House (Principal’s home and offices) at left. At right is the Single Sisters’ House and Salem Square.

Miss Emma was tiny, and even a bit on the frail side, but she was an accomplished teacher and a strict disciplinarian. The girls quickly learned that she would brook no nonsense. But Miss Emma was totally devoted to her girls…she wanted them to have a first rate education, but she also wanted them to have fun doing it. Diplomas meant commencement exercises and commencement exercises meant caps and gowns. Miss Emma turned that into fun.

Each fall, when the seniors registered for their final year, they were measured and their caps and gowns were ordered. As the date of arrival neared, usually the first week of October, the girls began checking the mail room daily, even hourly, for the shipment. When the boxes finally showed up, the word went out. The girls were allowed to put on their caps and gowns, and Miss Emma, sometimes accompanied by the headmaster, would lead them on a mile long hike up Main Street to the courthouse square in Winston, where they would take a victory lap before returning to the Academy, stopping at the gate to sing the alma mater and give their class yell.

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Hat burning, 1916

At some point, that ceremony acquired a second, equally cherished, component. After dark, the other girls, the faculty and staff would gather on the playground, later on the basketball field. The seniors would emerge from their quarters, clad in their new caps and gowns, and march solemnly to the playground, where some wood had been prepared. The president of the senior class would light the bonfire and then the seniors would file past, each one dropping an old everyday straw hat into the flames. Hat burning became a sacred part of Academy life.

But what really set Miss Emma apart was the hallmark of all good leaders…she led by example. In 1889, when it was rare for women to travel anywhere on their own, she led a group of students from the Academy and other area schools on a visit to the Paris Exposition and other European sites. And when she returned, she wrote and published a book about her adventure. In 1892, the first comprehensive compilation of American poets was published. It consisted of hundreds of pages. Miss Emma had her own page, complete with a picture and brief biography along with her best known poem “Sunset on Pilot Mountain.” In 1904, Miss Emma published a book of her selected poems. She also wrote a number of historical sketches of her hometown and of the Academy.

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The Victorian era, propelled by Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution, became the first age of popular science. So, of course, Miss Emma became a scientist, combing the countryside around Salem and Winston in quest of new species of fungi. In the 1890s, she found what she thought might be a new one at Roaring Gap. She carefully packed her find and shipped it to the state biologist of New York, who agreed that it was a new species and named it for her, Monotropsis lehmani.

Miss Emma was determined that her girls would understand everything about everything. Each year, she took her seniors on tours of the local tobacco factories, cotton and woolen mills, iron and wagon and carriage works, ice and electric and gas power plants, the railroad, the streetcar line, printing houses and other businesses and the county courthouse and any other place she thought they might learn something. In 1897, the Fries Power & Manufacturing Company built a dam at Idols on the Yadkin River and became one of the first companies in the South to transmit electric power over a significant distance. Among the first to take the tour were Miss Emma’s girls. A few days later, an article appeared in the local papers about the tour. The parts explaining how the power plant worked were clearly written by Miss Emma, no doubt with the assistance of her girls.

By then, the Academy had developed a sophisticated curriculum, consisting of a preparatory program, divided into four parts, lettered from D to A, and the regular Academy program, divided into four years and leading to a diploma. Younger girls were tested in many subjects, then admitted to the appropriate preparatory level, where flexibility prevailed…if a girl was doing top work in math, say, she could work at a different level in math than she was actually assigned to otherwise.

The Academy program itself was rigorous:

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The curriculum, 1892-93. The term “college year” is somewhat misleading. This was a high school level curriculum, almost identical to the course of study in the upper grades of the Winston public schools, which were considered to be among the best in the South.

Plus a mixture of other subjects, including philosophy and the social sciences. Many of the jokes produced by the girls in the early Academy yearbooks involve, as one might expect, psychology.

All of this got you what might be considered a high school diploma. In 1890, a “post” year was introduced. A girl who had her diploma could return for a year or more of special interest classes. Upon successful completion of that, she could be granted the AB degree. Eight ABs were granted the first year.

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All along, there had been classes in music, both instrumental and vocal, and the various visual arts. In fact, those areas had been perhaps the most important, signature, part of the Academy. By the late 19th century, Academy commencement had become a week long endeavor, featuring a series of concerts and recitals and art exhibits and dramatic productions and debates and receptions that dominated the Twin City in late May. The school was the pride and joy of the community and attendance at all events was standing room only.

In 1913, to celebrate the consolidation of the two towns into the city of Winston-Salem, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West made its first appearance in the city. The promoters were disappointed by the attendance and complained that most of those who showed up seemed to be the less wealthy denizens of the rural areas. Well, that is because they scheduled it during Academy commencement week. There was no way that authentic American Indians and bucking broncos and trick shooters could compete with a bunch of smart, attractive and talented Academy girls.

Meanwhile, the Academy also promoted health and vigor. Physical education classes became a standard feature of Academy life after the Civil War. The girls were expected to attend several classes per week. After Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in the late 1890s, the hoops game became something of a mania at the Academy.

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In 1910, as Thanksgiving approached, the freshman girls apparently did a bit of trash talking about  the sophomores. The sophs said nothing back, waiting to give their answer on the field on Thanksgiving Day…both the highest score and the worst beating ever administered to that time.

In those days, the girls did not go home for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving weekend became, for the Academy, the March Madness of its time. There was a basketball court inside the gymnasium, but the main court was outside, east of Annex Hall, and known as the “basketball field”, which was always used except in inclement weather. At Thanksgiving, a tournament was played. The first game pitted the freshgirls against the sophomores. The second saw the juniors take on the seniors. Then the winners played for that year’s school championship and the Haynes cup. If that wasn’t intense enough for you, the day was capped by the real thing, the annual showdown between the Euterpean and the Hesperian literary societies, the two most important organizations in the school…a true blood match.

See “The Madness began in November, not March…”

In 1914, Miss Emma celebrated her 50th year teaching at the academy. During commencement week, at the annual meeting of the Alumni Association, her “old girls”, as they called themselves, presented Miss Emma with a loving cup filled with gold coins. An ordinary person might have put those coins in the bank. Miss Emma turned them over to the school administration and told them to build a memorial to the class of 1914. Instead, they built some memorial steps to her at the front of Annex Hall.

Miss Emma answered the bell at the start of classes in 1915, but in mid-year, a small article appeared in the local papers, stating that she had suffered a severe health setback, but was recovering nicely. At the end of classes in 1916, she retired, having taught 52 years at the Salem Female Academy and College. But she continued to live in her rooms in the Single Sisters House and remained deeply involved in the affairs of the Academy. In 1917, for the first time since 1864, she failed to appear at a major campus event, sending instead a message that was read aloud to those attending. This became the pattern for the next few years. On November 7, 1922, the local papers announced that Miss Emma had died. A look at her almost unreadable death certificate tells us that she had probably had a heart attack in 1915, and had been slowly declining ever since.

A brief and touching memorial service was held at her rooms in the Single Sisters House, where the old Sunday school favorite, “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice” was sung by all. She was then buried at her home, the Bethania God’s Acre.

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The following Sunday, a public vesper service was held at Memorial Hall. Dean H.A. Shirley gave an organ recital to honor Miss Emma’s devotion to music, and selections from her published poems were read.

From her appointment as head of the senior girls in 1878, Miss Emma had always handed out the diplomas at commencement. When she retired, she had done that close to one thousand times…so figure that one thousand grateful old girls mourned her passing.

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In preparing this post, I gathered far too many images to show here, but they will not be wasted…stay tuned for a look at life on the Salem Female Academy & College Campus, 1870s-1910s, which will include a great picture of my all-time favorite class mascot and even a poem about him. Coming soon to a blog near you.

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