Around the turn of the 20th century, Maud Elizabeth Smith Wells was a kindergarten teacher in Washington, and she posed for photographs with some of her classes.
Wells, who died in 1955, was shown in a portrait with her white students that looks as if it was taken at a photographer’s studio, offering absolutely no indication of where the children may have met.
Pictures of her black students, however, were taken in a classroom, where a black teacher presides along with Smith, who hadn’t yet married Henry Wells of Wellsburg, W.Va.
Wells’ niece and namesake, Elizabeth (Betsy) Smith Stevenson, 89, a Washington resident and volunteer with Friends of the Citizens Library Bookstore, offered her photos of her aunt to those who were participating in a panel discussion at the library on the history of the black community in Washington.
But nobody knows much more about them.
Stevenson wondered if a descendant of a pupil might have some information. There is one clue about the location of the black kindergarten: a note on the back of the photo that it was taken on North Lincoln Street between Chestnut and Walnut streets.
“I don’t even know where I got (what) I wrote on the back,” Stevenson said, wishing she had quizzed her ancestors more thoroughly. “A kindergarten for even white children back then was remarkable. It’s maddening the way we let people go.”
To this day, kindergarten attendance in Pennsylvania isn’t mandatory, and the concept of kindergarten, as the German name implies, began in that country in the mid-19th century.
One can see the children’s classrooom had wallpaper, a feature that would not be found in an institutional school building, noted Sandy Mansmann, coordinator for the Washington County History and Landmarks Foundation.
Stevenson does have ample background on her aunt, the teacher. Maud Elizabeth Smith was a native of Wellsburg, W.Va., and earned a diploma in 1891 from Galesburg (Ill.) Kindergarten Normal School.
After finding employment as a governess for the owners of the Stetson Hat Co. of Philadelphia, she came to Washington when her younger sister, Pearl, enrolled in Washington Female Seminary.
As an aside, Stevenson relayed a bit of family history connected to the area’s first oil and gas boom: “Elizabeth and her sister, Pearl, there were a lot of years between them. They had an oil derrick in their front yard, so they sent Pearl to Berlin, Germany, for voice lessons because they struck it rich.”
“Elizabeth, she was just a plain sweetheart,” Stevenson said. “There were 12 in the family. I’m so sorry I didn’t get into this earlier.”
Pearl Smith graduated from the ladies’ seminary in 1906. The Smiths were strict Methodists, so Stevenson wondered if the kindergarten classroom was housed at Wright Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, conjecturing that Maud Elizabeth Smith ran private kindergartens rather than teach in public schools.
Beverly Thomas, 65, of Washington, who has been a member of Wright Memorial since 1954, said Stevenson’s theory is plausible. Thomas, citing a history of the church written in 1976 by her uncle, noted that the Wright congregation dates to the 1800s.
“The Rev. Charles Wright purchased a lot at North Lincoln and Spruce, the West property across from Nazareth Baptist,” Thomas said, reading from the church history and noting that members have congregated there since 1848, a date inscribed on the present building’s cornerstone.
Thomas’ grandfather, Thomas Harold Turner, was pastor of the congregation from 1932 to 1936, the year that the African-American survey of Washington for the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission notes that the current Wright Memorial A.M.E. Zion sanctuary was built, replacing the older structure.
The PHMC survey also refers to a 1909 Sanborn map showing a one-room “Negro school house” on North Lincoln Street, adjacent to, but separate from, Nazareth Baptist Church.
“By the time of the 1925 map survey, the schoolhouse had been replaced by this addition (to the Baptist church) that is labeled as ‘Community Center YWCA’ and would have been the location of the forerunner of the LeMoyne Community Center,” the survey said.
And while terms like “Negro school house” rankle modern ears, Mansmann has another view.
“Segregation was predominant, and typically black students were not even given an education,” she said. “Someone in the Washington community saw the importance of giving early childhood education to black students.
“They didn’t do busing. You served whoever was in the community. I’m proud that these kids were being educated.”
She asks that if the photos jog anyone’s memory, they stop by Citizens Library, where she works part time, or call her at 724-413-9921.