By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist
Originally published March 8, 2017. Revised March 5, 2020.
Women’s Day reminds us to honor, respect, and remember the obstacles that women have overcome and the goals they still endeavor to achieve. In family and local history we look at the women of our ancestry and communities who labored to birth, raise, and improve the lives of generations past, present, and future. There are so many stories that deserve to be shared. These are three of them. I hope you will add yours to this list.
In 1849, a young teacher, named Margaret Kerr Bell, was asked to come to Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, to take charge of female education at the newly established Waynesburg College. She was one of the original faculty members present on the school’s opening day in 1850. For one year, while the first building on campus was under construction, the women were taught separately from the men. But when Hanna Hall opened its doors to students in 1851, things began to change. Evidence indicates that Margaret was purposefully selected to lead the controversial movement toward equal coeducation. To do so, Margaret and her colleagues successfully overcame outrage and obstacles. So soon as 1857, Waynesburg College graduated three women with male-equivalent Bachelor’s Degrees. Student accounts suggest classrooms were informally mixed years earlier. This makes Waynesburg College one of the earliest schools in the United States, following Oberlin College in Ohio, to offer such equal, coeducational opportunities. In addition to this achievement, Margaret taught, advised, and inspired her students; led the school administratively with the man she later married, Alfred Brashear Miller; and gave birth to 8 children. She died at age 47 following a stroke. At the time, her youngest child was still a toddler and her oldest child, a daughter, had just started to attend classes at Waynesburg College.
In tribute, the town shut down for her funeral and her former students raised the money for the monument that marks her grave. During their lifetimes, Alfred and Margaret poured all of their energy and economy back into the school. They could not have afforded the fine, marble pillar that bears their names in Green Mount Cemetery.
On 1 June 1928, more than 50 years after her death, grateful alumni named a public school in her honor.
The inscription on the tombstone bought for a teacher by her students sums her life up best, “Erected by the Alumni Association / of Waynesburg College as a memorial / of the noble woman and devoted / teacher who gave the best twenty four / years of her life to the work of building / up the institution of which she was / the pride and ornament.”
Learn more about Margaret:
Margaret life’s work has impacted generations of students and continues to do so. Knowing her local history story enables us to appreciate the family history stories she touched even generations after she lived.
My paternal grandmother Sara (Livingood) Buchanan [1917-2009] was a proud Waynesburg College graduate, Class of 1938. Her sister Rachel and brother Bill preceded her, graduating together in 1936. Though Waynesburg had a long history of equal coeducation by this time, the 1930s were still very early in terms of the social acceptability of women receiving an advanced education. Grandma’s female cousins, whom she described as “so bright,” were denied college by their father who thought girls had no need of so much schooling. Fortunately, my widowed great-grandfather, John Madison Livingood, thought otherwise. His wife, Frances (Cook) Livingood, died of pneumonia when all four of their children were young. He denied offers to adopt the children out of his care. With help from his sister, Mary Ann “Aunt Sis” (Livingood) Venom, he kept the family together. He arranged for his sons and daughters to travel from their home in Graysville to the neighboring community of Rogersville for high school because that program included the vocational classes that he thought would be most beneficial. When it was time to consider college, John actually moved the family from the countryside into Waynesburg to a house on East Street, walking distance from Waynesburg College.
Grandma valued her education and enjoyed the legacy she began, as many of her children, grandchildren, and later great-grandchildren graduated from her alma mater.
Learn more about Sara:
To my maternal grandmother, Donna (Leasure) Kennedy, I am able to pay a living tribute. The theme of female education takes a turn in this remarkable story.
In the 1950s, Grandma attended high school at the very building named for Margaret Bell Miller in Waynesburg. In a community celebrating 100 years of equal collegiate coeducation, Grandma encountered another kind of obstacle to equal-opportunity, female education. She was forced to leave high school when she became pregnant with my mother, who was born in Summer 1959.
A hard worker, Grandma carried on, ultimately raising nine children. As her youngest entered school, Grandma decided to complete her own education. She returned to high school, this time to the new building known as Waynesburg Central High School. A member of the Class of 1981, Grandma graduated with one of her sons. Two more of her children were also at the school by her senior year. Determined and undeterred, she earned academic accolades to go with her cap and gown. Teased in the hallway one day by a classmate saying, “Here comes, Mommy!” Grandma responded, “No, I’m a Grandma now.” I had been born.
Throughout my childhood, I heard parts of this story, but it resonated most in 1998, my senior year at Waynesburg Central. My teacher pulled me aside to tell me how proud I should be of a history award I was to receive because that same honor had been bestowed upon my grandma.
These are just three of so many stories and just one of so many themes that we should embrace this Women’s Day. Whose story will you tell?