In the nineties, when I was growing up in the small East Texas town of Crockett, about a two-hour drive north of Houston, I could see nothing impressive about Mary Allen College. In fact, I could barely see its last remaining building, a decrepit, four-story brick structure, at all, because it was obscured by tall grass and debris. Vines had crept over much of it, and broken windows gave it a foreboding air. Sometimes kids joked that the college was haunted, but mostly, we ignored it. Today, with the grass mowed and the debris cleared, you can see the building from the street. A newcomer might wonder exactly what it is they are looking at. A historical marker out front explains that this place was “once the site of a 12-building campus and the home of a noted academic program of quality education,” but that is the only sign that this 137-year-old building represents an important part of Texas history.

My hometown has for years suffered declines in its population and economic opportunities. It’s a small miracle that even one of Mary Allen College’s original buildings still stands. But this place tells a vital, long-overlooked story about the fight for equity and Black self-determination in our state. And a group of dedicated supporters is trying to preserve and restore it.

Founded in 1886, what was originally Mary Allen Seminary marked an experiment in Black education. The driving force behind its creation was Samuel Fisher Tenney, a white minister who led the Crockett Presbyterian Church for 54 years. One of his early tasks as the church’s leader was to start a Sabbath school for Black people, taught by volunteers in the church. While Texas did not have any state laws that prohibited the education of enslaved people, as in other Southern states, many slave owners forbade them to learn to read and write. For those Black Texans who were free, there was very little educational infrastructure to serve them.  The 1860 census showed that of the 355 free Black people in Texas (130 of whom were aged 5 through 19), only 11 were enrolled in school.

At Crockett Presbyterian, volunteers focused on teaching reading and writing to both children and adults. Some local whites were opposed to the school, resenting the presence of Black people in their church, so it did not last long. What did persevere was Tenney’s commitment to maintaining a school for the newly freed Black community. Crockett was an ideal location, in part because most plantations were located in the eastern part of the state. After emancipation, more than 200,000 Black Texans were freed. Thirty-five percent of the population of Houston County, where Crockett is located, had been enslaved, so there was ample demand for the education Tenney hoped to offer.

He traveled as far north as Canada, giving speeches at other Presbyterian congregations and meetings and passing the collection plate to raise funds for the new school. With the blessing and financial support of the national Presbyterian Church, plans for the institution were underway by 1885. Mary Allen Seminary opened its doors on January 15, 1886, in a rented two-story hotel—the first school for free Black women in the state. It was named after the wife of Richard Allen, another Presbyterian minister and supporter from Pittsburgh who led an early campaign to support educating Black girls and women. On her deathbed, Mary Allen declared that “We must take steps at once to raise money for [the school]. . . . The Christian education for Negro girls by means of such schools goes to the very heart of the Negro problem. . . . Don’t let the work for colored girls in Texas lag.” By October 1887, Mary Allen Hall, the first of twelve buildings, was completed. Grace McMillan Hall soon followed, in 1889.

In today’s terms, we understand a seminary to be an institution that trains students for ministry. But in the 1800s, “seminary” was a word that was nearly synonymous with “academy,” and many schools founded for women used the term to suggest asceticism. Mary Allen was founded a few decades after the “Female Seminary Movement,” a nationwide effort to provide women—initially primarily white women—with the same educational opportunities as men. While religion courses were often included as part of the curricula, most seminaries for women concentrated on training students to be teachers. At Mary Allen, the initial intention was for the institution to serve as a boarding school that offered elementary, high school, and teacher-training education, with the hope that many graduates would eventually contribute to the development of more Negro schools. The historical record related to students’ experiences at Mary Allen Seminary in its earliest years is thin, but it’s clear that the college steadily attracted both students and financial support, which pleased the Women’s Executive Committee of the Board of Missions for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. In a monthly bulletin published during Mary Allen’s second year, the group called Mary Allen the “Mt. Holyoke of the southwest for Negro girls”—high praise, since Mount Holyoke was one of the nation’s top women’s colleges. The single published history of Mary Allen, written by alumna Naomi W. Ledé in 1995, reported that in the first five years, enrollment grew from 88 to 266 students, and nearby landowners donated three hundred acres for the campus. The experiment in Black women’s education was paying off.

An early class of students at Mary Allen Seminary in Crockett, date unknown.
An early class of students at Mary Allen Seminary in Crockett, date unknown.Courtesy of the Mary Allen Museum

But challenges were on the horizon. A smallpox epidemic in 1910, World War I, and the Great Depression were just a few of them. By 1923, only 35 students were on the official roll. The Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen was faced with a choice: figure out a way to reenergize the school, or permanently close it. In 1933, after nearly fifty years of educating Black women and girls, Mary Allen Seminary rebranded itself as a coeducational institution, Mary Allen Junior College. For the next forty years, Mary Allen would experience multiple changes in ownership and leadership. In 1944 the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Texas took over, and that same year, Mary Allen became a four-year liberal arts college. The GI Bill, which has helped hundreds of thousands of veterans pay for college, contributed to spikes in growth after World War II and the Vietnam War.

Among these students was my father, who had served in the Army from 1965 to 1969 in Germany, Louisiana, and Kansas. He had four-year college aspirations and enrolled at Mary Allen to complete basic courses such as religious studies, math, and English while continuing to work full-time, first at Wayne Williams Motor Company and then at Vulcraft, a steel joist–production company. He didn’t leave Mary Allen with a degree, nor did he transfer to a four-year university. But the college gave him something invaluable: hope. When I found his name listed in some of the unprocessed papers in the archive, it was a reminder that Mary Allen’s legacy is a living one, a lineage that I am a part of. After years of declining enrollment and an inadequate budget, Mary Allen College closed its doors at the end of the 1976–77 school year.

Maybe it took me moving away from home for twenty years to appreciate Mary Allen College. I spent many of those years in graduate school, becoming an expert in Black institutions, and then I spent four years teaching at one—Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta. In 2020 I accepted a position at the University of Texas at Austin, where I was recently promoted to associate professor of African and African diaspora studies.

Spelman shares a similar origin story to that of Mary Allen College. Founded as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, Spelman opened in the basement of a church before moving to its present-day site two years later. Like Mary Allen, Spelman originally sought to teach Black girls and women to read and write. Training at Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary grew to include preparing women to be teachers and nurses. Spelman has since grown to be the premier college for Black women and U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked HBCU in the country—quite a divergence from what Mary Allen has become. At Spelman, I witnessed how institutional pride buoyed students and staff through difficult times, and I felt a deep love and appreciation that schools like it exist.

When I went home in 2019 to visit my family, I noticed that the brush and debris outside the old building of Mary Allen College had been cleared. Looking up at it from the road, I felt a pang of sadness wash over me. But there was guilt, too. All these years, I had been in the presence of majesty, and I had missed it.

I walked the grounds that day in December 2019. Pulled in by what felt like a sacred invitation, I parked my car, pulled out several incense sticks, and walked up the hill to get a closer look at the building that I had never really seen before. I walked and prayed and gave thanks for what Mary Allen offered to several generations of Black people who believed education was a pathway to a better life. Some of those people left their mark by engraving their names in the sidewalk and on the steps leading up to the front door. I smiled at a few words that a long-ago student had etched in the steps and sidewalk: “summer class 1952.” I imagined the moment of that carving to be a celebratory one, one of those moments that Beyoncé sings about:

I was here
I lived, I loved
I was here
I did, I’ve done
Everything that I wanted
And it was more than I thought it would be
I will leave my mark so everyone will know
I was here.

When I saw a name that matched my mother’s maiden surname, I texted her to ask if she recognized it. She sadly didn’t, but it did not matter to me. I had already claimed the unknown person as family. I walked for a long while, circling the building, getting close enough to see inside but never daring to cross the threshold without permission. I had a real fear that I could enter and never come out.

The last remaining building at Mary Allen College.
The last remaining building at Mary Allen College. Ashanté M. Reese
A rendering of future plans for the building.
A rendering of future plans for the building. Courtesy of the Mary Allen Museum/Hutson|Gallagher

The remaining structure was, and is, in terrible shape. The roof is caving in. There are no doors or windows. I peeked into the openings where they once stood, and I could see that some walls and ceilings had collapsed. But the building retains a strong foundation. “Look at these windows. This architecture. They don’t build things like this anymore,” says the Reverend Jim Ainsworth, a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Crockett. On a recent tour of the grounds, he told me that when the surviving structure was built, architects dug all the way down to the bedrock to anchor it. 

He serves on the board of the Mary Allen College Museum, founded in 2000. Its goal is to preserve and restore Mary Allen’s remaining building to tell both the history of the college and that of African Americans in the region more broadly.

Ainsworth pointed out that the building has a basement, a rarity for East Texas. I marvel at that decision and wonder about the tenacity of the workers who dug it so long ago. It was almost as if it was always destined for some part of the college to remain.

And perhaps it will. The Mary Allen College Museum maintains a heritage house in Crockett that chronicles the college’s history. A sweater and a baseball hat bearing the school’s emblem are on display alongside photos of the basketball team, as well as printed pages of the school’s history and portraits of the founders. Under the leadership of Thelma Douglass (a Fulbright scholar and a Crockett High School alumna), the museum’s board is pushing to have the remaining building restored to house the museum and the college’s archives, which are currently at Tulane University.

The restoration will cost millions of dollars, but the board members are not deterred. “All things are possible if you believe,” Douglass declares. The board has hired Hutson Gallagher, a historic architecture and preservation firm, to provide an assessment and a cost estimate for the restoration. The results, expected within the next couple months, will determine the next steps. With these plans underway, the board carries forth a loud and clear message from Mary Allen College: I am still here.