Mary Holmes College (1892-2005)

Mary Holmes College, ca. 1910
Image Ownership: Public domain

Mary Holmes College of West Point, Mississippi, initially named Mary Holmes Seminary, was founded in 1892 by the Board of Missions for Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church with the purpose of educating black girls from primary grades to high school. The school was the vision of Reverend Mead Holmes and his daughter, Mary Emilie, who named the school in honor of their deceased wife and mother, a Presbyterian missionary who devoted her life to helping African Americans.  Mary Holmes was one of many schools established by northern churches after the Civil War for the education of Southern black children.

As the first private school for black girls in the state, Mary Holmes was originally located on donated lands in Jackson, Mississippi and opened its doors on September 28, 1892, to ninety female students from around the state of Mississippi.  The seminary remained in Jackson until 1895, when it was destroyed by fire and relocated to West Point on twenty acres of land donated by black citizens in the area.  The seminary was again destroyed by fire a second time on March 6, 1899, but was rebuilt and reopened on the West Point location in January 1900.

For the first forty years of its existence, the school remained true to its motto, “Not to Seem, But to Be,” as Mary Holmes Seminary focused primarily on educating young black women as Christian homemakers.  All of the early faculty members and staff were White and the curriculum focused around Bible studies, music, literature, and practical domestic arts.

Although it began as a school to educate black girls, in 1932, the school expanded its goal to include an elementary and high school for both boys and girls and added a college department to train African American elementary teachers in the South.  Also, the school’s name was changed to Mary Holmes Seminary and College.

By 1969, the school no longer offered elementary and high school courses and operated as a two-year accredited community college under the name Mary Holmes College.  By this time, Mary Holmes College had its own elected board of trustees and was no longer controlled by the Board of Missions, but it continued to receive financial assistance from the Presbyterian Church.

During the late 1960s, Mary Holmes College came under the scrutiny of the Mississippi state government for being politically active under its African American presidents.  Since the black students had already marched on the city of West Point demanding civil rights in 1967 and 1968, the state government became concerned when the administrators wanted to increase the student population from 400 to 2,000 and began investigating if the college had become a meeting place for civil rights activists.  Unfortunately, this was beginning of the school’s struggles.  Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the school was unable to attract the students and funding it needed to remain financially stable.  In 2002, the school lost its accreditation, and by 2004, it was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Before Mary Holmes College officially closed in 2005, the school operated in West Point, Mississippi for 112 years.