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  --  September 19, 1838--November 27, 1912   Table of Contents    Illustration

Brown, Hallie Q.
Homespun heroines

- GEORGIANA FRANCES PUTNAM -- Born 1839, Salem, Massachusetts -- Died 1914, Worcester, Massachusetts

Born 1839, Salem, Massachusetts
Died 1914, Worcester, Massachusetts

Miss Putnam was a daughter of George Putnam of Boston and Jane Clark of Hubbardstown, Mass. Her girlhood was passed in Salem where she enjoyed all the educational advantages available to the youth of her generation. Also, she grew up under marked salutary home influences. In that home plain living and high thinking were conspicuous. There the formative hand of an intellectual mother laid an indelible impress upon a family who responded to her touch almost automatically. They adored her, reverenced her; she moulded and manipulated them wisely and with a view to making them self-reliant, persistent and able to discriminate between filmy illusions and laudable ambitions. The children early arrived at a realization of life's responsibilities, becoming practical without being made sordid or narrow. They were a serious family but never dull or pessimistic. While the girls of their set who were entering womanhood were inclined to the notion that labor outside the pale of home was degrading, the Putnam sisters anticipated with enthusiasm a near future when they could attempt to be self-sustaining with the ultimate end of arriving at positions of confidence affording both dignity and competence. Animated by this spirit of independence each girl who reached maturity made her mark and became a vitalizing factor in the community where she settled.

Georgiana became a superior woman, physically and mentally. Though not a beauty she had a distinguished

personal presence, was tall, finely formed and moved with grace and ease. She had a clear modulated voice whose tones were free from the nasal twang typical of the New Englander. Her poise was accentuated by her pride, and her air of self-control invested her with a dignity as unique as unusual in so youthful and aspirant.

Upon attaining her majority, Miss Putnam left Salem for New York, resolved to take up teaching, a pursuit she had decided upon as most agreeable to her. At that time no special hard or fast restrictions impeded anyone who fancied the routine work of the "little red school house." Between that wooden edifice and the massive structure housing a common school of today lies a long, long distance, stretching far out of sight on one hand and farther out of sight on the other. This lengthened way is outlined not only by the lapse of time but by an evolution from arbitrary rote and unscientific practice to normal rational procedure having for its aim the judicious guidance of a pupil while directing that pupil's own efforts toward self-education.

At the start of her professional career, Miss Putnam was like Mrs. Tompkins-Garnet, an assistant in the old Williamsburg caste school. A friendship sprang up between these two women which lasted from prior to the opening of the Civil War till the demise of the latter in 1911. The points of likeness between the two were few, the points of contrast, many; some things and thought they had in common however, which appreciably affected their respective futures. Each had a deep interest in the general well being of a child; believed that a normal child should develop normally, and that the days of youth and adolescence should be the habit forming period and that it was the special duty of a teacher to supplement the parent's effort to see that a child acquired those habits recognized by all as forming the base of a life of usefulness and contentment. So, though neither was a trained instructor in the formal sense of the term, each from the beginning was of far different sort than pedagogues of the Ichabod Crane variety. The flowering

years brought to them the heritage of diligent observation and extended experience. They gradually arose to the consciousness that problems in teaching existed, were to be studied, and had to be solved; in proportion as these were discovered and solved, their work with children grew in importance and efficiency. Aided by increasing familiarity with child nature and its needs, they began to formulate and carry out plans in teaching founded upon common sense, and do original work for children, if without precedent, certainly unhampered by the trammels of a convention whose only merit was that it was time honored.

Like Mrs. Garnet, in the fullness of time, Mrs. Putnam "arrived." From assistant she became a "head of department" and later a principal of an independent primary school. In this highest position she was a model supervisor. She learned to understand and respect the relation between chief and subordinate; to see that at one and the same time, they are conservative yet elastic, formal though confidential. When race and color discrimination became a thing of the past in matters of public education, and colored schools were merged into public schools, a final promotion to an assistant principalship in a large Broklyn grammar school found Miss Putnam both waiting and ready. In this extended sphere of activity she knew just what to do and how to perform the responsible task of assimilating the diverse nationalities that comprise the rank and file in a cosmopolitan school. She was well prepared to help her teachers to help themselves to become familiarized with school routine and to catch the spirit underlying the effort; making it fruitful and vigorous. To the last day of her active service Miss Putnam kept in close touch with the multiplied affairs, administrative and executive, attached to the satisfactory oversight of hundreds of pupils. She particularly and practically demonstrated that scientific teaching discriminates between unity and uniformity; that a teacher should possess something above and beyond book learning and a minimum of culture. Of a speculative, philosophic turn of mind, she weighed and tested

all new departures in the work before indorsing them. So in an endeavor to shun the Scylla of rote and mechanical precedent, she never fell a victim to the Charybdis of vague unsupported generalities. With her the result of education was the emphasis of progress in physical and mental alertness, in moral clarity of insight. Her directions to her teachers were: "Keep the end in view always; note your aims and your resources, see if they will make it possible to transmute theories into practices that are seasonable and reasonable. Scrutinize all means to fully establish to the extent they will further what they are designed to accomplish."

The period of Miss Putnam's coming to New York and settling in Brooklyn, just acrosos the river was prior to 1865. The number of colored people in the locality was then comparatively small. Slavery in the state had long been abolished and none living there had any practical knowledge of it, nor were any of its after effects especially apparent. Being an epoch before the large influx of immigrants, the strenuous life was unknown, habits were simple and restrained, desires were limited and there was work enough for every worker. Tasks were undertaken leisurely and all were contended with small gains. Gradually as the population increased, the era of hustling and competition was launched, an economic revolution ensured in which old ways were swamped and the weaker worker as usual went to the wall. The radical changes so affected all sorts of business that the days for making money with a limited capital ceased to be. While it lasted many colored men and women acquired property in lands and houses, were able to accumulate savings and invest them judiciously. Their material prosperity was genuine if not extensive. A competence brought luxury and reasonably availed afforded comfort and satisfaction. Our women in New York included not a few engaged in widely differing trades and professions, each of whom was an ornament to her sex. With many of these, Georgiana Putnam come more or less in contact. Sarah Ennalls, Fanny Tompkins and Eliza Richards deserve special

mention. They were the heralds of that corps of our teachers who have so signally left their impress upon the important work of public education. Teaching was then not only done by rote, a method long since abandoned but also by example, a method always commendable. These women by restrained, industrious and unselfish living, exerted a marked influence for good over the young who literally sat at their feet.

When the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Miss Putnam was young, yet mature enough to understand the delirium of joy that seized her people. It was like what the Israelites felt when they started out to leave Egypt all unconscious of what was awaiting farther on. Till 1863, colored people in the free states toiled, lived, had ambitions for themselves, made sacrifices for their children very much after the fashion of other Americans not colored. But at no time could the incubus that weighted them be wholly ignored. Emancipation accomplished, they naturally looked forward to a future in which they could thrive and expand under the sanctity of law; be protected and sheltered in the exercise of those citizen rights upon the concession of which the fate of the republic had hinged. The gradual revelation of the true inwardness of the actual state of things dismayed many, disheartened not a few. Still the majority of thinking persons with tightening of lips and squaring of shoulders met the plain indecisions of deferred hope with a composure almost amounting to stoicism. These could discern a practical policy, that of aiming to stand erect under the most disabling conditions, that of attempting to advance in the face of apparently insuperable obstacles. They were sustained by the conviction that to live life faithfully, if not fully, lies within the power of every self-respecting individual. Georgiana Putnam was one who understood this and applied it and the life she developed during a lengthy series of busy fruitful years was rich and enduring in its aspiration and its accomplishment.

In the retirement of advanced age, hampered by physical

disability, she could find respite and consolation in her memories of well spent periods of activity during which her benign influence dropped in garnered fullness upon those who came in contact with her.

  --  September 19, 1838--November 27, 1912   Table of Contents    Illustration