Lucy Craft Laney (1854-1933): Life, Major Works and Accomplishments
At a time when African-Americans did not have the luxury of enjoying certain rights and freedoms in the United States, one woman decided to change that. Her name was Lucy Craft Laney and she was committed to using education to change the fortunes of her people. In 1883, she opened the first school for African-American kids in Augusta, Georgia and remained an active member in the black civil rights movements.
Read on about the extraordinary life of Lucy Craft Laney, how she defied the odds to receive an education, and how she gave back to the African-American society.
Background: Family & Education
Lucy Craft Laney was born on April 13, 1854 to David and Louisa Laney. David was a Presbyterian preacher and carpenter. He was a former enslaved man but bought his and Louisa’s freedoms twenty years before the birth of their daughter. At the time Lucy arrived, the family lived in Macon, Georgia with their six other children. In all, the Laney children numbered ten, as three more arrived after Laney.
Both David and Louisa supported education and felt that it would be good for their daughter to receive an education despite the laws that prohibited black people from learning how to read. Their sacrifice would go on to tremendously benefit Laney. She received her early education under the tutelage of Mrs. Campbell, her mother’s employer. By four, she could read and write, and by the time she was nearly a teenager, she could translate difficult Latin texts such as Julius Caesar’s “Commentaries on the Gallic War.”
She attended Lewis High School back in her hometown and later enrolled at Atlanta University in 1869, where she trained to become a teacher. It’s likely that Laney had wanted to read classics, but at that time, women were not allowed to take certain academic courses.
The teaching track, which permitted women, was what most women ended up taking. Four years later, she was a part of the first group of students to graduate from the school’s Normal Department and embarked on a teaching career.
Major Works: Educational Career & The Haines Institute
Lucy Craft Laney began her teaching career in Macon before working in other cities in Georgia like Savannah and Milledgeville. She taught for ten years before opening her very own school. Her main reason for opening a school was to give young black girls the chance to receive an education. So, she established a school in 1883 in Augusta, Georgia and operated in the basement of the Christ Presbyterian Church.
It was a big deal for Laney. This institution was the first of its kind to open up to black children. Initially, she had wanted it to be an all-girl’s school, but she decided to accept boys as well when she realized she couldn’t turn two boys away when they came to the school. When the school started, it had only six students, but in the span of two years, that number had risen to over 230. Laney served as the school’s principal.
While that was a huge accomplishment, having more students meant that Laney had to secure more funding to keep the school running. So, she embarked on a fundraising activity. Her first stop was to the Presbyterian Church Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While there, she made her request but was unfortunately rejected.
Luckily, her luck changed when one of the convention attendees, a woman named Francine E.H. Haines decided to donate $10,000 towards the school. In recognition of Francine’s contribution, Laney renamed the school to The Haines Normal and Industrial Institute.
The Haines Institute was dedicated to providing holistic education of “the heart, the hand, and the head.” Apart from academic learning, the students engaged in various extracurricular activities and sports, which weaved into community service. As a result, it became a relevant hub for the black community in Augusta. Many of the graduates that left the school went on to attend other prominent institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Howard University.
Laney’s influence on Mary McLeod Bethune
Lucy Craft Laney had a tremendous influence on many African American educators of the late 19th century and early 20th century. She imparted a great deal of knowledge to South Carolina-born activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955).
Around the late 1890s, Bethune worked as a tutor at Laney’s Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. The young educator had a great deal of admiration for Laney’s passion and character-building techniques she inculcated into the girls. As a matter of fact, Bethune took a page from Laney in terms of educational philosophies. She would go on to focus on education of young girls and vocational training of women as a means to advance the economic livelihoods of African Americans.
The Evolution of The Haines Institute
The school continued to receive funding as it expanded. In 1889, Laney was given a piece of land, as well as another $10,000 to build Marshall Hall. It was a four-storey building, with the first floor serving as classroom area and the remaining floors as girls’ dormitories. Several years later, in 1906, Laney received $15,000 in funding to build McGregor Hall, which served as the school’s main administrative center, as well as home to several other classrooms and a 1,000-seater chapel.
By 1912, the school had a population of about 900 students and 34 teachers. Laney herself taught Latin to fifth-year students.
The school experienced further expansions in 1924 with the addition of the Cauley-Wheeler Memorial Building, which housed the primary school. The building was named after a philanthropist Alice Wheeler and her nurse Mary Cauley. In 1951, however, the school was demolished and the new Lucy Craft Laney High School building was erected.
Lucy Craft Laney died on October 23, 1933 and was interred on grounds of Haines Institute.
Accomplishments & Legacy
Here are some of Laney’s major accomplishments she achieved and the legacy she left behind:
Participation in the Civil Rights Movement
Laney was active in advocating for the rights of many black people in the United States, especially African-American women. She was a member of the Niagara Movement led by W.E.B Du Bois and many other civil rights pioneers. She also played a huge role in the opening of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1918.
For her support of black women, she joined the National Association of Colored People, as well as the Interracial Commission.
Portrait of Laney
In 1974, a portrait of Laney was placed at the Georgia State Capitol in recognition of her contribution to education in Georgia. Alongside her portrait, were others of Martin Luther King Jr and Reverend Henry McNeal Turner.
Induction into Georgia Women of Achievement
Laney was posthumously inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement in 1992, which recognized her achievements in education.
The Lucy Laney Elementary School and Lucy Craft Laney Community School in Georgia and Minnesota were named after the prominent educator. Her burial site later served as the grounds for the Lucy Craft Laney Comprehensive High School.
The street where the first Haines Institute was situated has been renamed Laney Walker Boulevard.
Did You Know…?
- Laney’s father, David, was the person who rang the bells of the Washington Avenue Presbyterian Church in celebration of the end of slavery after the Civil War (1861-1865).
- The Haines Institute started from humble beginnings in a basement. When the student’s population increased in the second year, she moved the school to a haunted premises on Calhoun Street.
- Laney served as the school’s principal for 50 years! During her reign, the school opened the first kindergarten for African-American children, the first nurses’ training college, as well as the first black high school to have a football team that competed at the collegiate level.
- During the construction of McGregor Hall in 1906, some of the male students studying carpentry made most of the furniture in the building.
- Many prominent civil rights activists like W.E.B Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway collected photographs of the school to show at the American Negro Exhibit in Paris, France.
- One of the most prominent graduates from the Haines Institute was Frank Yerby. He is best known for penning the 1946 novel “The Foxes of Harrow.”
- Students at the Haines Institute were also taught technical subjects like laundry, sewing, and printing. The writer James T. Haley featured the school in his book “Afro-American Encyclopedia.”
Lucy Craft Laney truly revolutionized the education of African-Americans at a time when they had little to no rights and freedoms. She will be forever remembered as one of America’s most leading pioneers for quality black education and community service.