In our current generation, if this lady were living she most likely would have joined a Women’s Rights group and in all probability she would be out in front leading them! Perhaps this is not a fair judgment as we, of course, never knew Elizabeth Avery Colton and have no right to label or judge her but indeed, this was a woman, raised in a “mans world” who was before her time in many ways and because of what she believed in this is now a better country and place for all of us to have lived in!
Elizabeth Avery Colton was born unto this world December 30, 1872, the 2nd born of eight children to a Father who was commissioned as a Chaplain of the 53rd Regt., North Carolina Troops during the Civil War with the Confederate forces, who after the battle of Gettysburg (with permission of the Union Officers) remained behind the Union lines with the wounded for 3 months tending their needs until exchanged and returned to his Confederate unit; and unto a Mother who was the daughter of Colonel C. Molton Avery also of the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
This is the brief background of the Rev. James Hooper & Eloise (Avery) who brought Elizabeth into our world in of all places, the midst of the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, where her parents had gone after the Civil Wars end from North Carolina to be missionaries in 1870. She was to have a sister, Susanne, who became a missionary to Korea, and a brother, Molton, who was an associate Professor of modern languages at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.
This was a family that had very strong religious and educational traditions and as this story unfolds you can understand where the fortitude and dedication came from that this frail but determined female was to carry the torch of her beliefs into and through the rest of her life!
Her paternal grandfather, Rev. Simeon Colton (#413), had come to NC from Longmeadow, MA, where he had been a Presbyterian minister before her father graduated from North Carolina University with honors and had become a Professor of Latin & Mathematics for 4 years at Fayetteville Female High School and then had preached at North & South Carolina and in Georgia before leasing Alexander College in Burkesville, KY, where he remained from 1892-93, the time of his death.
Her father’s ill health obliged the family to neglect their own pursuits to aid the financial welfare of the entire family. This meant forgoing their own education but it was Elizabeth’s drive and desire to obtain a college education that eventually carried her forward, a huge ambition for anyone in those days to try, much less for a young girl!
Photo Courtesy of
Meredith College Archives
Carlyle Campbell Library
Elizabeth was forced to alternate study with teaching school, beginning at 16 years of age. Although she graduated from Statesville Female College, NC with a B.A. degree it was a great disappointment to find it was of little value when she applied for admission to Mt. Holyoke College, MA where she found she would be required to spend another year preparing before she could be admitted as a Freshman.
Because of her father’s death she taught for 6 years at Queen’s College in Charlotte, NC then attended Columbia U., receiving a B.S. degree from Teachers College in 1903 and the A.M. degree in 1905. Following three years of further teaching at Wellesley College, she returned to NC in 1908 to head the English dept. at Meredith College (then called the Baptist U. for Women, first known as the Baptist Female U.) in Raleigh, NC. The President candidly told her it was, “a good high school called a University”! She would spend the remainder of her active life at Meredith; and the year after she left, in 1921, Meredith became fully accredited as a standard College!
By now, Elizabeth was 36 years of age. At the time she began her efforts, the state of women’s higher education in the South was deplorable! In 1912 there were only 4 fully accredited women’s colleges in the entire area along with 38 other institutions whose “degree” was equivalent to only one year of College work, in reality the majority were only preparatory and/or finishing schools.
The educational chaos at the turn of the century in the South included difficulty in adequate support of public High Schools at the time and trying to better them. It was always Elizabeth’s great desire to see Meredith accepted into the Assc. of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the South. Although somewhat reserved in nature, she was always willing to help those who made the effort and tried, but was merciless to the lazy and her “sarcasm was to be feared”. She was looked upon by some as a fanatic and by others as a pedant, but by these very qualities the number of entrance units required at Meredith were increased from 11.5 to 14.0 in only 4 years, mostly through her efforts.
Photo Courtesy of
Meredith College Archives
Carlyle Campbell Library
In 1903 Elizabeth was one among a group who met in Knoxville, TN and effected an organization of college women of the South whose aims were almost identical with those of the Assc. of Southern Colleges. By 1910 she was appointed chairman of the Committee on College Standards and in 1912 she was elected Secretary, and in 1914 she was made President and continued as such; until her health failed. In 1915 she became a member of the Executive committee of the Assc. of Southern Colleges. The chief work of both associations was the encouragement of those institutions in the South, attempting to do work of a college grade and those whose quality of work made the name “College” fraudulent.
Towards this end Elizabeth worked through the committee(s) while still carrying on her regular teaching duties. She single-handedly set about a detailed survey of all the Colleges for women in the South. She wrote to each one requesting information and their catalogues, and then spent hours preparing reports on their Libraries, endowments, faculty qualifications, courses, etc. Miss Colton recorded her findings into a half-dozen bulletins published from 1911-16 on behalf of the Assc. of College Women. The most specific and influential was, “The various Types of Southern Colleges for Women” in 1916 in which she classified 124 institutions into 6 categories ranging from “Standard” to “ Imitation & Nominal Colleges”. Such a clamor followed that the Assc. President stopped distribution, but what the President dared not let the Commissioner do Elizabeth Avery Colton did and the Southern Assc. of College Women stood behind her. Some 4,000 copies were mailed that year to girl’s graduating from accredited High schools for their information.
Chancellor James H. Kirkland, of Vanderbilt U., and a fellow fighter for higher college standards in the South, remarked, “it was rather like a high explosive going off”. In violent reaction against the revealed truth, some indignant College Presidents threatened lawsuits. One, it is reported, blustered his way into Elizabeth’s presence and thrusting his hand into his pocket, pretending to have a hidden weapon, and threatened to shoot her. However, before her steady and merciless gaze he shortly retired from her presence and it was not long before he closed his so called “College”. Others, insisting on interviewing her, were found to be disarmed by this slender, dainty, distinctly feminine and gracious person, when they had expected more of a cross between the devil and Carrie Nation!
The influence of her work was incalculable, said Dr. B. E. Young, of Vanderbilt,
U., calling her publications an “epoch-making series” as did Dr. E. K. Graham, then
President of the U. of North Carolina when he paid the following tribute to her work:
“The work of Miss Colton has become known throughout the country, wherever there are committees on graduate instruction or committees on admissions to advanced standing; in short, wherever education is made a science, Elizabeth Colton is known as one of the South’s leading writers on education. And it may even be said that the high rating of the members of this Association in the educational counsels of other sections of the country is due largely to her willingness to vouch for our educational honesty!”
Elizabeth gave the best years of her life to this work but now the illness that had limited her efforts was taking its toll. Despite the spinal tumor, that would eventually seal her fate, she continued to promote efforts to add legislative teeth to her campaign for better schools. Her legislative Bill, setting minimum standards for a College charter, passed by only the smallest of margins and even then in a weakened form in NC. None the less, her analytical evaluation of Women’s colleges provided guidelines by which the S.A.C.W. was able to accredit such institutions; this in turn showed that the schools concerned where and how to raise their standards.
All this from a lady, slight of build, attractive in appearance, well groomed, modish in dress, vivacious, witty and buoyant and carefree in temperament even in the years filled with heavy responsibilities and while in much physical pain. To this she added an intense devotion to her principles as she saw them and a keen relish for a fight for a righteous cause. In 1921 the American Association of University Women passed a resolution of appreciation for her work in unifying these organizations.
From such humble beginnings Elizabeth Avery Colton saw her work and dreams come to fruitation. By 1920 she had to leave her teaching at Meredith College due to her illness. The next three years were spent in a sanitarium at Clifton Springs, NY where she passed away on August 25, 1924, losing for one of the rare times to an enemy she could not match up with!
You could say that her life was dedicated to helping others and most certainly she was instrumental in bettering the future for young women of college age, particularly in the Southern States.
This was a woman who never married nor had children of her own but when you realize the hardships she had to survive it creates another reason to be proud just to share the Colton name with such a wonderful person!
Since her time, many other Colton’s have gone into the educational field and surely more are still to come. There must be many such stories as this and we would like to hear of them. Please send us your story(s) so we can share them with all Colton’s everywhere!