“The Rough and Tumble of a Public School”

In March, I noticed two articles about Franklin School in Washington, DC. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, stands vacant at the corner of 13th and K Streets, NW. It is being considered as the site of a new museum in the capital. The news stories caught my eye because Franklin School is just a block from the site of James and Lucretia Garfield’s Washington, DC home at 13th and I Street.

The Garfield home at 13th and I Streets in Washington, D.C. was just around the corner from the Franklin School.  (Bundy)

The Garfield home at 13th and I Streets in Washington, D.C. was just down the street from the Franklin School. (Bundy)

When Franklin School was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, its significance was explained:

“The Franklin School was the flagship building of a group of seven modern urban public school buildings constructed between 1862-1875 to house, for the first time, a comprehensive system of free universal public education in the capital of the Republic. It was hoped that this new public school system would serve as a model for the nation as the need to provide equal educational opportunities for all Americans was finally recognized as essential to the survival of a democratic society.”

The building was designed by Adolf Cluss, and built in 1869. It had a bust of Benjamin Franklin on the façade, large windows, airy spaces, and an auditorium that seated 1,000. With its location in a prominent neighborhood, and its offices for the Superintendent and the Board of Education, Franklin School was a symbol of the new graded system of classes for boys and girls. Were the Garfield children among its students?

It is clear from Garfield’s diaries that the older boys, Harry and Jim, attended public school in Washington, DC for some time in the 1870s. Confirmation comes from Lucretia Garfield Comer, daughter of Harry and granddaughter of President Garfield. In her biography of her father, Harry Garfield’s First Forty Years: Man of Action in a Troubled World, she writes about Hal’s early schooling:

“In the fall of 1869, Harry was entered in the Primary Department of the Franklin Union School, and there he continued through the spring of his ninth year…The parents tried Jim there too, but scarlet fever intervened; and after the weeks of quarantine were over they put the younger boy in a small private school.”

It seems that Hal attended the Franklin School for the 1869-70 through 1873-74 school years; Jim’s time there is less clear.

The Franklin School is now vacant but is the proposed location for a new Washington, D.C. museum.  (Author photo)

The Franklin School is now vacant but is the proposed location for a new Washington, D.C. museum. (Author photo)

As a father and an educator, Garfield thought seriously about the boys’ school experience. His diary entry for Tuesday, February 13, 1872 indicates concern: “…Am troubled about Harry’s school. Scholars are a rough set. Must try to find a private school though the rough and tumble of a public school is good for a boy.” In November, 1873 he was still worried about “the most difficult question I have ever confronted, namely what shall I do with my children in the matter of education. I believe that the mind naturally hungers and thirsts for knowledge. I cannot doubt that something is wrong with our system of education which has made both my boys hate the sight of a school book.”

The busy congressman had time to be involved with his sons’ school. On May 19, 1873: “…In the evening took Crete and Mother to the Franklin School concert, and staid till half-past nine.” Perhaps in an effort to understand the “system of education,” on May 15 “…In the Evening Miss Perkins and Miss McCall took dinner with us. They are the teachers, respectively of Jimmy and Harry, and I am glad to talk of late methods, and see how the teaching world has been going since I left it…” And on June 4th that year: “…Attended Harry’s examination at the Franklin School Building. Harry did very well; though I think he is like me in this, that he does better under pressure than on ordinary occasions. Some of the nervous boys did not do themselves justice. I am persuaded that our public schools are overworking their scholars. I saw many signs of nervous exhaustion among the little fellows in Miss McMahon’s class…”

James and Lucretia Garfield were very involved in their childrens' educations.  Despite President Garfield's early death, all of the Garfield children went on to academic success.  (Library of Congress)

James and Lucretia Garfield were very involved in their childrens’ educations. Despite President Garfield’s early death, all of the Garfield children went on to academic success. (Library of Congress)

The next school year Hal, Jim and Mollie Garfield attended a local “kindergarten.” In May, 1874, Garfield wrote, “I am troubled to know what to do with the children next in regard to their education. They do not seem to have that hunger and thirst after knowledge that I always felt when I was a child.”

That fall the Garfields ended their experiment with public school. October 26, 1874: “Crete and I started out early to settle Harry and Jimmy in school. We have determined to keep Mollie at home this Winter and teach her a little of housekeeping and something of books. Harry and Jimmy need the hand of a master at school and after much discussion of the subject, we concluded to send them to Mr. Young’s private school on the west side of Franklin Square. Terms, twenty dollars each for ten weeks…” Mr. Young’s school was the Emerson Institute, established in 1853 as “a select, classical, and mathematical school for boys.” The school was on 14th Street, between I and K streets. Harry Garfield was ten years old, and Jimmy was eight when they were enrolled there.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide


1 thought on ““The Rough and Tumble of a Public School”

  1. Fascinating, Joan. I never caught that the older Garfield boys attended school near their home ion Washington, DC. Appreciate your research!

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