[Home] [Book] [Expand] [Collapse] [Help]

Clear Search Expand Search

  --  1830--1914   Table of Contents     MRS. S. J. S. GARNETT
  --  An Appreciation

Brown, Hallie Q.
Homespun heroines

- SARAH J. S. (TOMPKINS) GARNET -- Born 1831, in Brooklyn, N. Y. -- Died October, 1911 in Brooklyn, N. Y.

Born 1831, in Brooklyn, N. Y.
Died October, 1911 in Brooklyn, N. Y.

Mrs. Garnet (nee Smith) a retired school teacher, well known in New York educational circles, suddenly terminated October, 1911, a career of unusual length and usefulness. Her demise at her residence in Brooklyn followed almost directly a welcome home reception tendered to her by an Equal Suffrage Club of which she was the moving spirit. She had just returned from a trip abroad, having gone to London to be present at the first Universal Race Congress. The journey, the sessions, the visit to the continent, gave unalloyed gratification to this grand old woman whose birthday was celebrated for the eightieth time while she was sojourning in foreign lands.

So thoroughly did she appear in touch with things vital and progressive, her friends in the warmth of greetings barely remembered her recent passage through the "eight-boned" gate. Delighted to have her in their midst again, they naturally inferred the indefinite enjoyment of her association with them. Her multiplied acts of kindness and unselfish devotion, her rare sympathy and exquisite tact were profoundly appreciated. As a champion of equal rights, a club woman, an ardent pleader for fair play for women; as an illustrious example of a developed American woman of African descent--in these various phases she attracted an attention at once respectful and permanent. Her single mindedness, persistence, self-abnegation; her faith, loyalty and reverence for humanity, gained for her an enviable reputation which she maintained with a modest dignity and becoming seriousness.

Her parents were Sylvanus Smith and Annie Springstead;

both were partly and directly descendants of aboriginal Indians of Long Island. Mr. Smith was a large land owner and a successful farmer. His eleven children of which Sarah was the oldest, were strictly trained in habits of regularity, industry and thrift. The Smiths proudly boasted that they were "Americans of the Americans." Prior to the advent of Europeans, many members of the family had placed their names and records of their deeds upon the unwritten annals of Indian story. These were faithfully rehearsed from misty times until the era when Sylvanus came under the influence of these traditions, always stirring, often pathetic.

A line of exceptional women were the progenitors of the subject of this sketch. The records of the town of Southhampton state that in the early sixteen hundreds, Quashawan, a direct descendant of Massasoit, had her royal wigwam upon the hills of Shinney-cock, where in the early morning one can catch a glimpse of the sea through the mist as through a bridal veil. A century later, the traditions of the Indian Reservation refer to a Queen Betty who dwelt on Mastic Creek where the tide-water and the Forge River unite.

With the progress of time came the forcing of resistless changes upon the Indians. They were no longer able to roam and could with difficulty claim and hold meagre portions of the territory once theirs to an unlimited extent. Harsh laws and oppressive acts compelled a vast majority to become tenants where their forefathers had been owners. On the records of Queens County for 1808 is written that Sylvia Hobbs purchased of Cornelius VanWyck, a few acres on Hempstead Plain for an abiding place. This "Granny Sylvy" as she is still affectionately recalled, was great grandmother to Sarah Smith. In Sylvia's home, Sylvanus, Sarah's father, learned to work and to think, and catching the impetus of his grandmother's indomitable courage, became cautious yet intrepid, reserved but unsubdued. No opportunity was laid at hand for an Indian child to get the

"larnin" so prized by the settlers, so the farsighted "Granny Sylvy" expended part of her restricted means to maintains a school in her homestead attic. Imbued with the spirit to achieve, the desire to make something of himself and for himself, from this lowly estate Sylvanus went forth to try his fate in the arena of existence.

Sarah inherited much from her father and vied with him in resourcefulness and persistency. At the age of fourteen she began teaching, the compensation for which was twenty-dollars per annum, a rate of pay considered quite adequate. At the time of her retirement from active professional labor she was receiving twenty-five hundred dollars yearly and women of her grade were waging a fight to secure "equal pay for equal work." The appointment she held calls for today, thirty-five hundred dollars, but the high cost of living and the many legitimate demands connected with the position make even this sum no extravagant remuneration.

The period of her service covering fifty-six years was coincident with the time of the elevation of teaching from a haphazard occupation to a plane of systematic efficiency. Its gradual rise from a trade to a profession made possible the foundation of a science of education, made necessary the evaluation of methods in teaching, resulting in gradation of both work and the workers. All of Sarah Smith's contemporaries in the work of teaching and including herself, had to learn what their work really comprised and how it was to be done, had to become learners while continuing to instruct. Those alert enough to discern the signs of the times and aspiring enough to undertake the onerous task of keeping abreast with new conditions and their demands, found their services not only retained but required. Those who failed to comprehend the evolution in school room activities sooner or later sought more congenial pursuits.

During her five decades of service, Mrs. Garnet, as Sarah finally became, worked diligently from pride, a sense of duty and deepening apprehension of the vital importance

of her work. She took stock of her resources and resolved to sail, not to sink in the tide of progress. This entailed severe and exhausting hours of study and reflection. She perceived in her advance toward broader views and a more discerning outlook, much that fully compensated her for her assiduity. She learned that much book knowledge, more culture and most executive ability should be included among the assets of the successful teacher. She never faltered in her resolve to evolve from her own inner consciousness exhaustive and intelligent replies to the most important questions within the range of her professional experience. "What is teaching? What is a teacher?" This she believed and rightly so, was the only way to do justice to herself and her pupils. And truly the meritorious end did indeed crown the laudable work. From the position of under teacher in one of the caste schools of former Williamsburg, she came at last to the exceptional dignity of a principal in a grammar school in Manhattan Borough of Greater New York. This distinction has until now been attained by no other of "our women" in the metropolis where there is no race of color discrimination in public education.

Though she found the position not an easy one to fill, her reasonableness, her serene temper, her combination of affability and dignity, her patience and her tact, insured her success. She secured the regard of patrons, the fidelity of teachers, the obedience of pupils and the deference of supervisors, and she maintained the reputation she so honorably gained with an unconscious grace and dignity peculiarly her own.

Among her pupils are many whose after careers redound to her credit. Among these are Walter F. Craig, violinist, Richard Robinson, music director in public schools, Ferdinand L. Washington, well known in financial circles and Harry A. Williamson, a podiatrist, and an author of monographs on Free-masonry of international renown. Her prolonged life brought her into association with more than one generation of teachers. Some of these pre-eminently

successful are Catherine Thompson, Mary E. Eato, Rosetta Wright, J. Imogen Howard, Florence T. Ray, Fanny Murray, S. Elizabeth Frazier and Maritcha R. Lyons.

As a young woman she could be met in one or more of the circles founded for social relaxation and intercourse, though in those days no very hard and fast lines were drawn for New Yorkers. Among our people who were comparatively few in number, all lived as close neighbors. Strangers with proper introductions were always extended a welcome that was sincere, if sober.

In the first flush of womanhood Sarah Smith married an Episcopal priest, by the name of Tompkins, who died young leaving two children. Later she contracted a second marriage with Rev. Henry Highland Garnett, who died after a few years while Resident Minister at Liberia. A widow again in her maturity as she had been in her youth and having survived her children, she returned to her father's home, undertaking the role of mother's helper and "big sister," she became for an indefinite period a valuable acquisition to the household.

Marriages, deaths, and separations for various natural causes, at last depleted the family circle. Mrs. Garnet finally set up her own establishment on Hancock Street, Brooklyn, where with always one or more of the younger generation for company, she spent her last days in a refined leisure that gave her ample opportunity of doing much for uplift and betterment. In such a congenial atmosphere she remained active yet calm until almost instantly her "energy was transmuted into repose."


  --  1830--1914   Table of Contents     MRS. S. J. S. GARNETT
  --  An Appreciation