She is hailed as a brilliant educator, administrator, student, and business woman. Because she was also pious and intelligent, she, and Agnes McClung, were tapped to be the first women joint-principals of the Augusta Female Seminary in 1863. ‘She’ is Mary Julia Baldwin, and under her direction the seminary became one of the most highly regarded women’s schools in the south.
Miss Baldwin kept the school open during the Civil War and was able to increase the enrollment from a wartime low of six students to more than 250. She was also clever in real estate. When she took over the school it had one building. At the time of her death in 1897, she had acquired 14.5 acres including campus and a nearby farm, and she gave all of it to the seminary.
Many students have heard some of the stories that have made her a legend. She suffered from a damaging fever as a child that paralyzed the left side of her face. As a result, she would not permit portraits or photographs of herself. There is one sketch, reportedly done by a student, which shows her praying but does not show her face. That sketch is reprinted in To Live in Time by Professor Emerita of History Patricia Menk.
There are numerous accounts of her character including stories about her creative methods to protect and feed students during wartime – stories worth reading about. For instance, to prevent soldiers from confiscating the seminary’s flour supply, students and staff covered barrels of flour with petticoats and used them as nightstands.
She showed her confidence in women’s intellectual capacity by traveling to the University of Virginia to enlist the help of Dr. William McGuffey in developing a curriculum for the seminary equal to that of the university.
There are lesser-known tales that demonstrate her belief in education for everyone. She set up a school — funded with her own money — for slaves and their children. A black missionary, William Sheppard, named a lake in Africa after her.
Join faculty, staff, and students for Founders Day October 7 in honor of Miss Baldwin and Rufus Bailey (the man who founded Augusta Female Seminary in 1842). You might also consider a visit to Miss Baldwin’s grave in Thornrose Cemetery (pictured above) to remember the woman who ensured that Mary Baldwin University offered the finest education possible.