As much as the Indian tribes had resisted, in 1910 the U.S. government assumed full control of the tribal schools in the former Indian Territory. The schools still continued to be supported by tribal funds, but the funds were now to be disbursed directly to each school superintendent, who reported back to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.
The old tribal schools for the former Choctaw Nation had dwindled to just a few: Jones Academy, Armstrong Academy, Tuskahoma Seminary, and the oldest of all, the long-enduring Wheelock Academy. From 1898 until 1910 the schools were managed as “contract schools” with little continuity in educational standards and subject to rapidly changing personnel.
In 1910 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reached out to a young promising administrator named Margaret Eleanor Allen, or simply M. Eleanor Allen, to become the new superintendent of Wheelock Academy. She was the first of many brilliant female administrators to guide Wheelock Academy until the school closed in 1955. She would earn the impressive moniker, “Greatest Educator of the Indians.”
A native of Cass County, Indiana, losing both parents by the time she was five years old, Miss Allen entered the Indian Service in 1902 at Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation, beginning as principal at the Cherokee Female Seminary, and quickly rising to the position of superintendent. In March 1909 the school was sold to the state for the future home of Northeastern State Normal. Miss Allen then transferred to Wheelock. Under her six-year guidance, Wheelock Academy prospered with many improvements made to its infrastructure.
“The dormitory was enlarged, a new barn was built, the water supply was improved, walks were built, electricity was brought from Millerton for lights only, peach and apple orchards were planted, the old school building was moved from the east side to the west side of the dormitory and an attractive log cabin was built for the use of the Home Economics Department.”
~~ Wheelock – Through the Years, by Toru Wilson Herndon, page 33
After serving as Wheelock’s superintendent from 1910 until the fall of 1916, Miss Allen transferred to the newly opened Bloomfield Academy for Chickasaw girls, utilizing the former buildings of the Hargrove College on the highest ridge above Ardmore, Okla. – after fire has destroyed the third Bloomfield campus in 1914. The Ardmore community was delighted to hear of her appointment.
~GREATEST EDUCATOR AMONG THE INDIANS ~
Superintendent of Bloomfield Academy Is Named
The Indian families of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations and the city of Ardmore are to be congratulated that Miss M. Eleanor Allen has been appointed superintendent of Bloomfield Academy, the new Indian school for young women located in this city.
Miss Allen for fifteen years has been superintending tribal schools in this country. Her reports every year show her school to stand at the head of the list of all tribal schools in the United States. She was the first superintendent to introduce domestic science and economics in the Indian schools. Miss Allen is now at Wheelock Academy at Millerton in the Choctaw Nation and will be succeeded there as superintendent by her assistant, Miss Minta Foreman, a Cherokee Indian.
Miss Allen bears not only the distinction of having her school stand at the head of all tribal schools in efficiency but she also bears the distinction of being the first woman superintendent of any Indian reservation school. For fifteen years she has been engaged in this work. She was at one time at Lebanon (Burney Institute for Girls), and from there she went to the Cherokee National Seminary, where she remained until that school was taken over by the state and then she was transferred to Wheelock Academy.
Miss Allen is an aunt of James A. Cotner, former mayor of this city. She has long been in love with Ardmore and has invested her money in this city. She owns property in close proximity to the business section and also has holdings in the residence section. She has visited here frequently and is known to many people in this city.
Miss Allen is a woman of intellect, culture and of fine training. She is an ideal woman to place at the head of the greatest Indian school for young women in the state and the chances are good that this school un-der her management will be well supported from tribal funds and that it will be continued for many years to come. The seminary for Indian boys at Tahlequah gets an appropriation of something like $50,000 a year and there is no reason why Bloomfield under the management of a woman like Miss Allen will not be equally well cared for.
The opening of Bloomfield will mean much to Ardmore. Many Indian families will move here for the benefit of the school and these Indians will build handsome homes and become public spirited citizens of the city. Ardmore can now have something to offer to the Indian people. They can be invited to build their homes and to help build Ardmore into the largest city in all Oklahoma.
~~Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Okla.), Sunday, October 22, 1916, p1 & 4
Bloomfield Academy provided education through the ninth grade. Miss Allen always wanted her students to seek further education at advanced schools such as Haskell Institute in Kansas or Chilocco Indian School. But as she told educator Ralph Hall in a 1933 interview, Miss Allen’s mission included the girls who wanted to stay close to home:
“Because many students did not continue their education but went back home or married and began homes of their own, a primary focus of the school was to enable the students to make those homes better places by providing training in “home living,” that is, domestic art and science, cleaning, gardening, animal care, nutrition, and etiquette. In other words, the students were being taught “how to live,” whatever sort of life they chose, and to help others in their families and communities. Allen never mentioned assimilation as an objective of the school; perhaps, that is because it was so generally accepted as the objective that it need not be said.”
~~ Listening To Our Grandmothers’ Stories, Amanda J. Cobb, page 73
Miss Allen briefly retired in 1920, being succeeded by a former student and protégée, Miss Minta Ross Foreman. Miss Foreman had also replaced Miss Allen at Wheelock in 1916, thus becoming the first Indian woman to be appointed as a school superintendent. Miss Foreman, a Cherokee, was the daughter of the Rev. Stephen Foreman.
“She has since served in both Choctaw and Chickasaw schools virtually remaking and re-organizing each and making it a power for good in the community of which it was the center. In accepting her resignation Commissioner Sells said: “With rare talent and unceasing energy, you have devoted many years to the betterment in mind, body, and character of Indian girls whose lives will long reflect your splendid influence. It is worthwhile to have so lived and served and I wish for you a large share of the good things of life you so richly deserve.”
~~Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Okla.), Sunday, August 8, 1920, p7
As several students recalled many years later:
Ora Lee Chuculate Woods (1930-36) believed that Eleanor Allen had this attitude.
“ I tell you she really stirred a conscientiousness and awareness in the girls to be something bigger than that little school. … I really feel that she had the idea that she was training the girls to be leaders of the community.”
Hettie McCauley King (1925-30) felt much the same way. She said emphatically that “[Bloomfield was preparing me] for a good life. Really to me, it was inspiring. We were all proud to be there.”
~~ Listening To Our Grandmothers’ Stories, Amanda J. Cobb, page 114
After a brief foray into the business world as a hotel manager in Ardmore, Miss Allen returned to her first love in the fall of 1924 and resumed the superintendent’s position at Bloomfield Academy. She retired for a final time in 1934, and was succeeded by another outstanding educator, Miss Eva Lewers, who later served the Eufaula Boarding School so well.
Miss Allen retired to Colorado Springs, Colorado, a place she often visited and the home of her sister Anna Cotner. She lived a quiet life until she passed away December 2, 1945. See her online memorial under the name Margaret Eleanor Allen.
For Indian children of many other tribes, boarding school was a frightening, abysmal experience that scarred them deeply. Not so with the Chickasaw schools. Entry into Bloomfield Academy was greatly coveted by many Chickasaw girls, as Amanda J. Cobb finds out in her interviews with a number of past students in Listening To Our Grandmothers’ Stories, pages 74-76:
Under missionary control, all families were encouraged to send their daughters. Under Chickasaw control, students applied to attend and were selected based on their ability to meet the entrance requirements, one of which was basic literacy. Under federal control, students attended for various reasons.
I asked each of the women I interviewed why they had attended Bloomfield Academy instead of a public school. The answers varied, to a certain extent according to when they attended. For example, women who attended in the 1910s and 1920s were often sent to Bloomfield because attending the boarding academies was a family tradition.
Hettie McCauley King, a student in the 1920s, remembers how proud her parents were to be graduates of Chickasaw boarding schools: “Well, my parents sent me because my mother went to the old Bloomfield . . . and my dad was in a government school… I forgot the name of where he went [Harley] . . . she just believed in education. And it was a government school… back then … it was considered really good.” Hettie’s remark indicates that her mother, a graduate of Bloomfield under Chickasaw control, believed in education, and, furthermore, believed in government-run education. Bloomfield had obviously kept its good reputation, even though the Oklahoma public school system had been in place for a number of years.
For Juanita Keel Tate, a student in 1918, attending Bloomfield was not only a matter of tradition but a matter of practicality. She recalled how her mother, a graduate of old Bloomfield, “was determined that we were going to get our education” in spite of the family’s financial difficulties. Juanita’s mother, Lula Potts Keel, was responsible for raising and educating twelve children. Juanita said that her mother “saw that we were all educated, and that is really the reason we all attended Indian schools. We could get a good education with practically no expense.”
Like Hettie’s mother, Juanita’s mother valued education — to such an extent that all twelve of her children attended boarding schools instead of helping out at home.
One of the women remember being influenced by the stories of older sisters, cousins, and aunts who were attending Bloomfield. For example, Frances Griffin Robinson, who attended in 1927- 29, remembers pleading to go to Bloomfield after seeing how different her cousin Dinah was on her very first visit home. She recalled, “I have a first cousin [Dinah]. We were practically raised together. But she got to go to Bloomfield because she was orphaned in that her father was not living. When she came home the first time from Bloomfield, she was just so groomed, just so different, and I wanted to go. So I just kept on and kept on until… my dad was the one who had say-so . . . and they took me to Bloomfield.” Frances did not think she would get to go because, as she remarked, “They would not just take you if you lived near a school. They’d rather take orphans and children that lived a long way from school.” Frances felt lucky because her walk to the nearest public school was difficult, enabling her to attend Bloomfield. She said, “So, let’s see, I lived about five or six miles from Bethel School, and we had to, of course, walk, and a lot of times when we would have a heavy, heavy rain — well, it would be hard for us to get across a little old branch… but this is the only way that helped me get into Bloomfield.”
Many women, especially depression-era students, spoke of hard times and educational disadvantages and stated that going to Carter (formerly Bloomfield) was the only way to get an education. A few remember being recruited by an Indian agent because of their home situations. Fannye Williford Skaggs and Leona Williford Isaac (1933-47) related the following story, which is exemplary of what many depression-era students expressed:
“Well, we lived out on a farm and at that time, there was … we didn’t have a car and the school was probably. . . . Yes, across the creek where you had to have mules to get everyone across when the creek was up. There was no bridge there at that time. . . . This was back in the years of the depression anyway. And there was no money…. And some of the people in the neighborhood that were around there that had to go to that school had their feet wrapped up in tow sacks in the winter time. It was not an easy time…. You know there was no money, and no food, and no grass, and no water, and no animals…. That’s why we were sent, I’m sure. Part of it… I understood that… you had to pay if you were Indian and you went to a public school anyway. . . . But things were different when you had an Indian agent to take care of your business for you, and the business included the children and where they went to school. So I know that my mother… I have no doubt what she said when she was advised to send us to boarding school so the Indian Department would not have to pay that school any money. . . . Because whatever that Indian agent advised them to do, they probably did because supposedly it would have been for their benefit.“
YAHOKE to all those educators who have lovingly labored on our behalf!
***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
under fair use exception; not-for-profit educational purposes
Amanda J. Cobb, Listening To Our Grandmothers’ Stories, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2000.
Dr. Amanda Cobb-Greetham was named the 2018 Dynamic Chickasaw Woman of the Year by Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby.
Toru Wilson Herndon, Wheelock – Through the Years, pamphlet at Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society.
Photo collection of M. Eleanor Allen, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society
Various news articles from The Daily Ardmoreite, as cited.