In the late 1800s, the state of education in North Carolina was bleak. The illiteracy rate was 36% (compared to 14% nationwide). Per pupil spending on education was one of the lowest in the nation, and the average teacher’s salary was less than $24 per month – about half the national average. The school year was only 60 days (compared to an average of 135.7 across the United States).
With the chartering of the State Normal and Industrial School by the General Assembly in 1891, North Carolina politicians and educators created an institution specifically aimed at training female teachers for public schools in the state. When the doors to the school opened on October 5, 1892, 176 students enrolled to learn how to teach and improve the state’s educational opportunities. In fact, of the 717 women who graduated from the school during its first 22 years, all but 33 went on to teach for some period of time in North Carolina public schools.
While the students were learning how to improve their teaching, the graduates were still being forced to teach in sub-par facilities – often one-room wooden school houses which educational leader James Y. Joyner deemed to be “a lion in the path of rapid progress.” A 1902 address to the student body by the institution’s founding president Charles Duncan McIver particularly struck the students. He stridently urged them to “labor as mothers and teachers to provide education” in the state. As a result, they formed an organization known as the Woman’s Betterment Association, a group which sought specifically to improve North Carolina school buildings.
The motives which led the students of State Normal to organize the Woman’s Betterment Association are best expressed in one of their early informational bulletins: “Realizing that under present condition, and with the present surroundings of the average school-house, it is impossible to train the youth of the state properly, and realizing further, that unless the women of the state take hold of this very important matter it will remain neglected, the students of the college have organized themselves and call upon the other women of the state to join them in making attractive and habitable the houses in which our children spend five days of each school week.”
With the Woman’s Betterment Association leading the charge, educational leaders across the state were charged with examining existing schoolhouses and making recommendations for improvements (or replacements). Viola Boddie, a charter faculty member at State Normal and head of the department of Latin, was one of the professionals sent to survey the educational landscape. She recalled “traveling around the state in an open buggy, pulled by a mule, observing rustic schools with spaces between the logs wide enough to ‘throw a cat through if not a dog.'”
Only four years after the creation of the Woman’s Betterment Association, 1,133 new school buildings were constructed in rural areas across North Carolina at a cost of $490,272. The total value of the entirety of public school property across the state almost doubled in that short four-year period. According to a 1906 state report, these improvements were a direct result of the work of the members of the Woman’s Betterment Association, who “became effective lobbyists for every educational case.”