Settlement Schools

At the end of the nineteenth century no universally accepted standards or requirements for any level of education existed in the South. Defeated in the Civil War and their economies devastated, the southern states had little monies to expend on education, and newly freed African Americans also now had to be figured into educational projections. The chief instrument of education in the South prior to 1860 had been private academies; now public funds must provide. The rural nature of the region with its agricultural economy made it poorer than the industrialized Northeast and more dispersed in population than the Midwest. Southern states strove first to develop elementary education in cities and towns, but their attention to mountainous regions lagged behind until the turn of the century.

Into these more removed areas, instead, came outsiders with the purpose of educating the young through settlement or mission schools. Different groups established this fieldwork for diverse reasons, but their programs shared certain characteristics. They included a curriculum of craft or trade training which made each school somewhat self-sufficient while also developing skills among the students. As part of the “myth of Appalachia,” residents of the region were considered to be pure Anglo-Saxon stock. The discipline of self-help in the form of manual labor or crafts production would effectively remove the children, and through them the whole population, from squalor. The people of the hollows would be shaped into the images held up for them by the earnest outsiders.

This middle-class idealism was a translation of the settlement-school philosophy as developed and exemplified in Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago. Progressive reformers believed that learning might build the community as a whole through programs involving different generations. In Appalachian settings such intergenerational endeavors acquired the name “fireside industries.” Ironically, these programs introduced particular materials or methods of craft production from outside the region for the “mountaineers” to incorporate in making and selling their “authentic” objects in distant markets. Attempting to impose their own standards upon another group made the outsiders’ approach a paternalistic one. Rearranging local customs to fit better a preconceived notion was both manipulative and destructive. Some modern critics have called these efforts subversive colonization, instigated in order to get at and use up the region’s resources.

Most settlement schools were located in Appalachia, and the majority were coeducational. In Tennessee, legislation mandating that a public high school be built and maintained in each county of the state passed into law in 1908. Spearheaded by Philander P. Claxton, this initiative included a bill that required 25 percent of the state’s gross income to go to a General Education Fund to support the program. All school-age children living in a rural, mountainous county, however, might not be close enough to the one high school to attend it. By the 1930s settlement and mission schools and colleges existed in nineteen East Tennessee counties extending from the northeast corner southward: Johnson, Carter, Washington, Greene, Cocke, Sevier, Blount, Monroe, McMinn, and Polk Counties, with Hancock, Claiborne, Grainger, and Jefferson Counties adjoining the diagonal lineup. Roane County and four counties on the Cumberland Plateau, namely Overton, Putnam, Cumberland, and Franklin, completed the set in the region. In comparison, five settlement and mission schools were reported in Middle Tennessee.

Of the thirty-four East Tennessee institutions, three were independent of any one church group, and five schools’ affiliations are not known. Denominations represented among the remaining schools were: Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian USA, Southern Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Friends, Methodist Episcopal South, and Episcopalian. Eight institutions were devoted to higher education (Lincoln Memorial University and Tusculum, Hiwassee, Maryville, Milligan, Carson-Newman, Tennessee Wesleyan, and Washington Colleges). The remaining twenty-six schools were labeled as follows: five secondary, eleven both secondary and elementary, one junior high, one both junior high and elementary, two elementary, and six unknown. The great majority, then, attempted to fill the gap in secondary education in remote areas or to prepare students to become teachers themselves. Many settlement schools closed once expanded public education reached their locales, but a few continue and operate today, though they have evolved from their Progressive-era or earlier beginnings.

Suggested Reading

David Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine (1983)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Settlement Schools
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018