Mississippi historically lagged behind most American states when it came to public education. Although some individuals, including territorial governor W. C. C. Claiborne in 1802, advocated for public education during its earliest territorial days, most officials within Mississippi territory did not endorse a broad system of public schools. The territorial legislature did establish Jefferson College, but made no effort to provide free education to Mississippi children. During the early nineteenth century, most Mississippi children received instruction at home. Some families pooled their resources or were able to direct town funds to pay for local schools, which became the earliest public schools in the state. In 1830, only thirteen percent of Mississippi children attended public schools. Families with more money sent their children to private schools, and the wealthiest often chose to send their children to secondary schools or universities in the north due to the quality of the programs there.

Several small colleges emerged in Mississippi during the nineteenth century, including some women’s colleges. Some of these programs tailored the curriculum to courses seen as appropriate for females in society. This meant heavy emphasis on domestic interests and arts. However, a few of the women’s academies offered a more traditional university course load, including Whitworth College, whose president argued that women were as capable of handling the same intellectual and technical pursuits as men.

The Civil War substantially changed public education in Mississippi. The conflict interrupted most Mississippi schools and universities, but federal intervention in Mississippi political and social events after the war led to new emphasis in public schools. Northern Republicans and philanthropic volunteers in Mississippi sought to integrate former slaves into Mississippi society and opened free schools for children, regardless of race. The Mississippi constitution of 1868 directed that the state government provide a public school system funded by taxes for Mississippians between the ages of five and twenty-one. The Reconstruction legislature founded the black land-grant college in the country, Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College.

The end of Reconstruction led to a downturn in public education across Mississippi. As conservative white southerners regained control of state politics, funding for African American education programs dwindled, and by the 1890s the state formally segregated schools. The Mississippi school system remained segregated well into the twentieth century. Educational support for white children was not a priority for state officials either, and Mississippi did not require school attendance for children until 1918, making it the last state in the United States to enact such law. (Wikipedia; Mississippi Encyclopedia)

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