Emma Frances Grayson Merritt: Pioneer in Negro Education

By Taylor, Estelle W. | Negro History Bulletin, January-September 1996 | Go to article overview

Emma Frances Grayson Merritt: Pioneer in Negro Education


Taylor, Estelle W., Negro History Bulletin


Emma Frances Grayson Merritt was born on January 11, 1860, in Dumphries [sic], Prince William County, Virginia, one of seven children, the third of four daughters of John and Sophia Merritt. When she was three years of age, her parents moved to Washington, D.C., where she received in the public schools here [sic] primary and secondary education.

In those early days when few Negroes, especially Negro women, could afford the time or the expense or were even inclined to pursue a truly liberal education, Emma Merritt had a burning desire and determination to improve herself both culturally and intellectually. The extensive and diversified training she received at the time is, indeed, remarkable. In 1875, at the age of fifteen, she graduated from the Old "M" Street High School, later Dunbar High. From 1883 to 1887 she did undergraduate work at Howard University, and for three years, from 1887 to 1890, she studied at the Columbian University, now George Washington University. She returned for three years--1889 to 1892-93--to Howard University to specialize in mathematics, and again from 1895 to 1898 she attended the Columbian University, where under Professor Craven she studied general child psychology and sociology. At the Cook County Normal School, which she attended from 1898 to 1901, she again specialized in mathematics and took courses in psychology, child study, and methods of teaching on the primary level. She was, in addition, a graduate of the Phoebe Hearst Kindergarten Training School of Washington, D.C. Tireless in her quest for knowledge and in her dedication to the task of self-improvement, she found time also to satisfy her keen interest in French and at the same time prepare herself for many trips abroad by taking and receiving credit for a number of extension courses offered by the Berlitz School of Languages and Columbia University in New York.

Emma Merritt's career as an educator reflects the same progressive spirit, dedication, perseverance, and ability that her career as a student reveals. Starting in 1875, at the age of fifteen, as a teacher of a primary grade class at the Stevens School, she rose through the ranks to become a principal of Garnet School in 1895, the director of primary instruction in 1897, and the supervising principal of primary education in 1926, four years before her retirement.

Throughout her career she devoted her energies and her great talents to improving the quality of instruction and to introducing imaginative and what were then considered revolutionary methods of teaching. For example, in 1897 she organized and actually equipped and maintained the first kindergarten for Negro children. To insure the operation of this program for at least an experimental period of time, she personally raised the salary for the teacher of this first kindergarten class. She volunteered her services for the first summer school at Stevens School; she organized, developed and advanced in Divisions 10 and 11 the primary department and is, therefore, responsible for the establishment of the concept of the kindergarten-primary (K-P) division in the overall educational organizational plan of the schools. Still other innovations for which Emma Merritt is responsible are the organization of the first demonstration and observation schools to improve teachers and teaching techniques, the introduction of the homogeneous groupings of children for more effective teaching, and the initiation of the practice of observational study, excursions, and visits to interesting sites in the city, a practice which has become an integral part of "experience-oriented" practical educational curricula on all levels. Finally, she introduced the discipline of silent reading in the schools of the District of Columbia before any provision had been made for it in the course of study. In 1925 when she gave at the Cleveland School a demonstration in which she put into practice her new "modern" methods and approaches to teaching. …

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