Eliza Mitchell Grant (1833-1883) and Margaret Elliot Mitchell (1825-1905)
Now known as Mitchell Community College which admits both female and male students, it was once Concord Presbyterian Female College and then Simonton Female College. Educational opportunities for women have not always been widely available and even when it did start becoming available, there was a stigma attached to a woman who sought a formal education. The place for women was in the home, not in the classroom or the work force, most thought. However, in the mid-1800s that began to change. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 launched the women’s suffrage movement and part of their plea was to allow women the same educational opportunities as men. While some church denominations denounced the movement and condemned its aims, some Methodist and Presbyterian churches supported the crusade. The Presbyterian church had already established a school for men called Davidson College, so plans were made to create a female institution which was chartered in 1852 and opened in 1856.
The Concord Presbytery faced challenges from the beginning including rebuilding and a delayed opening after a windstorm destroyed partial construction on the school. Their largest hurdle to overcome was that of finances following the Civil War. The Reconstruction Years were not kind to the institution and there was talk of closing the school. Tuition was raised to keep up with expenses which deterred students from attending. In 1871, the school was sold to R.F. Simonton and his wife Roxanna and he renamed it Simonton Female College. His goal was to separate the school from the strict Presbyterian structure while still adhering to religious principles; a task which many school leaders failed to achieve. Simonton’s big break was with the hiring of the sisters, Eliza Mitchell Grant and Margaret Elliot Mitchell.
In 1875, the Mitchell sisters are brought in to run the school; Eliza at its head and Margaret in the classroom. The women were the daughters of Elisha Mitchell, whose fame in exploration and science became his legacy. He passed his passion for learning to his daughters who held high expectations for their school. The women had both experienced personal setbacks which led them to this moment. Eliza’s husband was murdered in Texas where they lived, shot by angry neighbors over a dispute about cattle. Her son was only a few months old when his father was killed. Four years later, Eliza would bury her son who died at the age of four from diphtheria. Margaret suffered from physical issues, mainly her eyesight which was never good and deteriorated over the years. Neither of them let their circumstances get them down.
Eliza and Margaret stepped into their roles perfectly and carried out Simonton’s original goals. Under their administration, they revolutionized the education system at Simonton and set a precedent for future schools in the area. They hired teachers without knowing their denominational affiliation in order to procure the most qualified instructors. They dispensed with end-of-year examinations which stressed students and instead opted for daily recitations to maximize retention of information. Parents were even encouraged to visit students and see their progress. This provided ongoing support and encouragement for students. While strict in the classroom, Eliza provided extracurricular breaks for students such as picnics and Christmas meals. She wanted the students to feel at home in the school, firmly believing that the more comfortable they felt, the harder they would work in their studies.
Scholars suggest that without the Mitchell sisters, and specifically Eliza’s leadership, there would be no school today. Under their supervision, the college’s attendance increased and their finances improved to even better than they were prior to the Civil War. After Eliza’s death, the school went through some more changes, many of which even threatened to close the institution permanently. In 1917, the school was renamed Mitchell in honor of the sisters.
In 1932, the college began admitting men as a response to the Great Depression which put economic strain on both men and women to afford higher education prior to the outbreak of World War II. In 1958, the school was awarded full accreditation status and was admitted to the North Carolina System of Community Colleges and Technical Institutes in 1973. It is a thriving college today and an integral part of the education of young minds in Iredell County and for that, we can thank the two women who saved the college from failure and turned a page in the history of higher education for women in Iredell County.