Almost anyone who has attended Northeastern State University, or has lived in Tahlequah for any length of time, knows about the university’s genesis as the Cherokee Female Seminary.
They also have heard other tales about school history. It began just after the Trail of Tears, with the Cherokees’ dedication to higher education for young people, and instructors imported from eastern Ivy League universities. Many stories concern Florence Wilson, legendary Female Seminary principal, whose presence many believe still lingers at Seminary Hall and Wilson Hall nearly a century after her death.
But the school’s 150-year legacy also includes many little-known tales – more than even Dr. Brad Agnew, NSU professor of history, could unearth during five years of research spent on the official NSU centennial volume, “Roots from the Cherokees, Promises for Our Future: The Chronicle of Northeastern State University.”
Thursday Agnew discussed many of those stories during the monthly Cherokee history presentation, sponsored by the Cherokee Nation’s history and cultural department.
One of his first sentences dispelled one of the myths about NSU. The Cherokee Male and Female Seminaries officially opened May 7, 1851, and frequently were touted as among the first institutions of higher education west of the Mississippi, especially for young women.
“We claim that NSU started in 1846. That’s not true,” he said. “But there is a physical connection and many of our instructors, our students, our administrators bridged both institutions.”
He said the Cherokee Nation’s influence continues to shine into the contemporary atmosphere at NSU, with Centennial Plaza fittingly centered by a statute of the great Cherokee syllabary inventor Sequoyah. The plaza, and statue, were dedicated during the NSU centennial celebration last year.
“I really think we should be Sequoyah State University, but the alumni would probably rise up and tear me limb from limb,” Agnew said.
The Female Seminary officially ceased to exist at statehood in 1907. The fledgling state of Oklahoma purchased Seminary Hall, and the 40 acres surrounding it, for $45,000 two years later. Even Gov. Charles Haskell, of Muskogee, admitted that was about half the property’s worth.
Agnew showed numerous photos of pages unfolding the seminaries and their students, the tough Civil War years, the transition during statehood, and the evolution from Northeastern State Normal School to the current NSU.
He praised some of the current programs, including the College of Optometry and its active music program, with opportunities ranging from jazz to classical, popular and country. Perhaps NSU’s most famous graduate, Carrie Underwood, is a superstar in the latter.
“We have country music, we have the River City Players in the summer. It’s a remarkable program for a university of our size and our location,” Agnew said.
Then there are the athletes, who have competed under the names Redmen and RiverHawks.
“We had a remarkable series of losing teams in the early part of our history,” Agnew said, adding that in recent years basketball teams’ success have made up for that rather poor record.
A 1906 photo portrays Charlotte Mayes Sanders in the basketball uniform of the day. Agnew interviewed her in her later years, and called her a delightful woman. She attended the Female Seminary, and later enrolled at Northeastern. She recalled playing the University of Arkansas.
“We beat the pants off them over here and they did the same to us when we played over there,” she told Agnew.
While Seminary Hall, dedicated in 1889 (replacing the Cherokee Female Seminary in Park Hill, which burned on Eastern Sunday 1887) is the oldest building on campus, many may not know the second oldest. It’s the small red building just north of Seminary Hall.
Its metamorphoses over the years have included the science building, industrial arts, financial aid, and, most recently, athletics offices. But it began life as a bathhouse. That was necessary because in the early days, many students lived in tents on campus and needed “sanitary facility” nearby.
The auditorium/gymnasium, built in 1918, is the second substantial campus building.
The two columns standing south of Seminary Hall, on the west side of Centennial Plaza, also have a proud history. One, made of bricks from the old seminary, was dedicated in 1913 to Florence Wilson. The second was dedicated in 1919 to 19th century Principal Chief John Ross.
“John Ross is literally responsible for the establishment of the seminaries,” Agnew said.
The Ross column was formerly where the Jack Dobbins Fieldhouse now lies.
“The rumor was, if you walk between the columns, you’d never graduate from NSU, but I don’t believe it, because one of the columns was originally on the other side of the sidewalk,” Agnew said.
And while the Muskogee and Broken Arrow NSU campuses are recent developments, they follow the tradition of sending out professors as extension instructors in the 15 counties originally covered by Northeastern’s territory.
During the transition years from the seminary to Northeastern, Seminary Hall still was used. (The Cherokee Male Seminary, west of town off Fourth Street, remained an active Cherokee coeducational institution until it burned in April 1910).
“There was a tremendous shortage of teachers in this area and the state began holding summer normals at the old seminary,” Agnew said.
These summer sessions allowed teachers in common schools to maintain a standard of learning, which they could pass on to their students.
The state established the normal school, one of six across Oklahoma, in 1909.
“We did not offer a college degree. We offered a certificate. It was a six-year program, four years of high school and two years of college,” Agnew said.
In 1919, Northeastern State received the ability to confer degrees.
At first, enrollment was scant.
“The first president opened the doors and there was no one there. By afternoon, there was no one there, and someone suggested he might go around and recruit,” Agnew said.
Over the years, growth was slow and sporadic. During World War II, the need for soldiers (and women to fill traditional men’s jobs in their absence) left the institution operating with between 200 and 250 students. Growth the past 20 years has been rapid.
Agnew mentioned the fifth president, George Warren Gable, memorialized by Gable Field. In his day, students were dismissed from class early on game days. They then were expected to go to the field and pick up rocks, to make it suitable for play.
Then there was Dr. T.L. Ballenger, still an NSU figure when Agnew joined the faculty in 1968. Agnew credits him with imparting much institutional memory.
Running through the photos, Agnew commented that some of the chief differences were in student dress and the behavior expected from students, especially the females.
“One of the things I had the most difficulty finding information about was the integration of NSU. It happened without news. Our president didn’t want any news,” Agnew said.
Two women from Muskogee made their mark – Lola Hudson as the first black faculty member, and Muriel Saunders, also black, for being elected homecoming queen in her 70s.
Speaking of student decorum, Agnew returned to the early days of the seminaries when reading his account of their founding.
The Female Seminary girls apparently conducted themselves above reproach, but the same could not be said for their male counterparts.
Agnew said the mandatory abstinence pledge all boys were required to take “was frequently violated.” Perhaps this helped to account for the fact that 12 girls completed the first term, while only five boys did.
And even then, older people commented that the younger generation was going to the dogs, or language to that effect.
The seminary curriculum was unusual, given the usual attitude of the time toward education of nonwhites. They usually were channeled into vocational courses, but the seminaries insisted on high-level, college prep courses, including a classical and scientific education.
However, they did not teach Cherokee history, culture or language.
But today’s NSU students are able to study these subjects and pass on the teaching of Cherokee culture.