Early Liberty citizens placed a high value on the education of their young people, and even though it was unusual for the times, that included educating their daughters. Several female schools were established during the town’s first few decades, some of which were considered on par with Eastern institutions.
Two blocks east of the Liberty Square sits an unassuming tan building at 9 S. Leonard St. (pictured below) which served as part of the most renowned of those schools, Clay Seminary for Young Ladies. The boarding school was founded in 1855 by Professor James Love, chair of math and natural science at William Jewell College, and his wife Lucy Ward Love (pictured below). While Professor Love is often credited with Clay Seminary’s success, it was his wife who created a program of studies that was based on the premise that “each student shall think for herself.”
Mrs. Love modeled the curriculum after her own education at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. While a few “ornamental” classes on homemaking skills were offered, traditionally male subjects such as math, biology and history made up most of the students’ coursework.
The feature that distinguished the school was an emphasis on public rhetoric. End-of-term exams were oral and took place at Second Baptist Church in front of faculty judges, fellow students and the public at large. Hundreds attended to hear students recite original poetry, read essays and work math problems aloud. The two literary societies staged debates on current issues, which caused a stir among audience members, many of whom wrote letters to the editor of the Liberty Tribune marveling at the students’ knowledge and expertise.
A Clay Seminary education proved valuable to those who grew active in women’s causes over the next several decades. One debater was Caroline Moore of Belton, Missouri, who became the axe-wielding temperance leader Carrie Nation. Another debater, Phoebe Routt Ess of Liberty, guided the Kansas City area’s women’s suffrage movement and founded the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club.
The Loves managed to successfully operate Clay Seminary through the uncertain times of the Civil War. They sold it in 1866 to local educators who transitioned it to Liberty Female College. The less rigorous curriculum never rivaled that of Clay Seminary.
The larger of the two campus buildings burned in 1879, and the small building on Leonard Street changed hands several times over the next century. In 1984 it became part of the Clay County government complex and was renovated with funds raised by the Clay County Historical Society. Today it is a registered Clay County Historic Landmark.
Content for this feature was contributed by volunteers from the Clay County Archives Library and the Clay County Museum & Historical Society.
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