John Shearer: Researching Professor John Roy Baylor’s Time In Anniston, Al.

Friday, September 21, 2018 - by John Shearer

With Baylor School observing the 125th anniversary of its founding this year, I thought it might be fun to examine some aspect or aspects of the school’s history I have not really researched before.


One area that likely no one connected to Baylor has apparently focused on a whole lot is the life of founder John Roy Baylor before he came to Baylor.


Many patrons know he attended the University of Virginia, and that he focused on U.Va.’s and founder Thomas Jefferson’s philosophies of education. 


And it has also been told that five Chattanooga civic leaders – four of whom had young boys – were interested in finding someone to start a boys college preparatory school in Chattanooga in 1893. They came across Professor Baylor’s name after he was recommended during some correspondence with University of Tennessee president D. Charles Dabney, who happened to be a good boyhood friend of Professor Baylor in Virginia.


It has also been documented that the school was first located – ironically -- in the former McCallie family home across present day Lindsay Street from what is now Memorial Auditorium.


Regarding his pre-Baylor days, former teacher Jim Hitt’s detailed 1971 history of Baylor, “It Never Rains After Three O’clock,” briefly mentions some of the places he worked before coming to Chattanooga.


And they were kind of an eclectic mix of schools. In the 1870s, he first served as an instructor and later principal at the Mountain Spring School in the North Alabama town of Trinity near Decatur.


From 1878 to 1888, he was an instructor at the Miller Manual Labor School for orphaned children in Albemarle County, Va., by Charlottesville. During that time, he married his wife, Julia L. Howard.


From 1888 to 1890, he was principal of an unnamed school for boys in Savannah, Ga., before going to the Noble Institute in Anniston, Ala., just below Gadsden.


Mr. Hitt does not give any detail about the Noble Institute, so I decided to see what I could find when I went down to Anniston several weeks ago with my wife, Laura, to see the family of her son, Robert Whitelaw.


As it turned out, I think I ended up going away with more questions than answers, but it was still enlightening.


I did my research at the Anniston Public Library located off the tree-lined Quintard Avenue, likely one of the prettier urban streets in Alabama. I went into the Alabama Room, and two or three staff people were quite helpful in giving me some folders on the history of the Noble Institute and showing me the old Anniston city directories from that time period.


Unfortunately, I could get no help from the available printed information on Professor Baylor’s role at the school. I did not see his name anywhere in the material, and while the library had several city directories from that time period, they had none from the years of 1890 to 1893 when he was in Anniston.


Adding to the mystery was the fact that I later realized there were two Noble Institutes in Anniston during that time period – one for girls that stayed open longer, and a lesser-known school for boys located in a different part of town.


The girls school had opened in 1886 at the corner of Leighton Avenue and 11th Street by the affiliated Grace Episcopal Church, which still has a large and handsome church facility on that block. The school was named for Samuel E. Noble, the president of the Anniston Pipe Works.


It was in operation until the 1920s. A nice-looking dorm building for girls was built by Mr. Noble’s family in the late 1800s after his death. After the school closed, it became an inn. It burned to the ground in 1965 in a memorable moment in Anniston’s history.


Since I could not find Professor Baylor’s name anywhere in the information on the Noble girls school – even in a list of principals or school heads – I deduced rightly or wrongly that he might have been connected with the boys school.


After all, he went to Anniston from a boys school in Savannah, and Baylor School was a boys school his first year there, although it was briefly coed after that.


In 1890 when he would have arrived in Anniston, the school was going through its period of greatest growth since its founding in 1887. Located in a pretty stone and brick building on Stringfellow Hill seven blocks north of the girls school on Leighton Avenue, it had 59 students in second through 12th grades when Professor Baylor apparently came.


Whether he served as headmaster is not known, although Mr. Hitt said that he took “charge” of the school after moving from Savannah.


He likely was or held some top administrative position, but much less printed information on that school was found than exists on the girls school. There was no list of school heads with the boys school, for example.


The Noble Institute for boys later became a public Boys High School in 1896 and was in operation until January 1910, when it, like the former Noble girls building, was destroyed by a fire.


Today, the modern Stringfellow Memorial Hospital sits on the small hilltop location, but one can easily imagine that it would have made a nice location for a boys school. Behind the hospital are the football stadium and other athletic fields used today by Anniston High. They were likely once part of the school grounds, too.


What helps one visualize that this might have been Professor Baylor’s stomping grounds in the early 1890s is a Victorian-style house a block south of the hospital. Now a medical office, it was likely built shortly before or slightly after Professor Baylor’s time there.


And Grace Episcopal Church, which has a style of Gothic stone architecture similar to the buildings at the University of the South at Sewanee, is a real eye catcher. Since it was built in 1885 with the help of the Noble family and others, it was likely worshiped in by Professor Baylor, who was an Episcopalian.           


Unfortunately, though, Professor Baylor’s name is apparently out of eyeshot to those seeking information on him in the fine collection of archives in the Anniston Public Library.


But in Chattanooga, where he came in 1893 and served until his death in 1926, his name is still found on the school he started.


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(Note: In connection with Baylor’s 125th anniversary, this is the first of several stories over the fall related to its history).


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