The Humble and Generous President
In 1878, Alexander Sloan Townes was selected to be president of the Greenville Female College, thus beginning a rejuvenated and invigorated era following the turmoil and struggles that traumatized the South during Reconstruction. This cultured and highly intellectual man came from a family that was involved not only in Greenville, but also in Furman University and the Greenville Female College. In effect, Townes’ impressive resume in higher education and his Greenville roots made him a suitable candidate to succeed the revered Charles Judson as president. Throughout a sixteen-year period as president, Townes was an innovator in women’s education. His unassuming and reserved nature combined with his humble presentation were misinterpreted by some as unusual; however, those who knew the man, including his colleagues and pupils, would attest that Townes was a highly capable man of strong and stable character who cared deeply about the Greenville Female College. Under Townes’ leadership, the college expanded its facilities and student body. Financial matters were neither Townes’ forte nor his greatest concern, and his unwavering generosity in personally supporting financially challenged students sometimes hurt the school’s profit. This Greenville native will be remembered for his efforts in reenergizing the Greenville Female College after Reconstruction by enriching the College’s curriculum and providing an educational atmosphere in which students, regardless of financial status, could grow intellectually and morally.
Prior to his presidency, Alexander Sloan Townes lived an interesting adult life filled with diverse experiences that helped mold his character in preparation for leadership. At age twenty, Townes enlisted in Hampton’s Legion on June 13, 1861, and thus began his long service during the Civil War. The young South Carolinian experienced the heart of battle on many occasions and was only fifteen miles away at Lynchburg when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.1 Townes was fortunate to survive this horrific war, but upon returning home he had the difficult role of delivering the unfortunate news of Lee’s surrender. Cook’s description of the ill-fated defeat and its impact on Greenville represent the extreme significance of the preservation of the Confederacy in the South: “The sad news was answered by a feminine scream and by his (Townes) father’s anxious inquiries whether it was not a part rather than all of Lee’s army.”2 After Townes’ days as a soldier ended, he decided to travel overseas and study in Germany for eighteen months. Upon his return to the United States, Townes headed multiple schools in Georgia, including the Baptist Female College in Rome, Georgia.3 Townes evidently left a good impression on those at the Female Baptist College, for years later a Shorter College historian referred to Townes as “a very quiet and amiable gentleman, with none of the blow and bluster of many with far less merit as educators.”4 After a brief stint at the reigns of the Curryton Academy in Edgefield County, South Carolina, Townes was ready to return home to Greenville and preside over the Greenville Female College in 1878.5
The early years after Reconstruction represented hope for renewed prosperity at the Greenville Female College. Although the debilitating effects of the Civil War would take many years to overcome, it was time to enter a new period in Greenville. Regarding the newfound economic energy permeating the region, Townes stated, “Everywhere in the old Palmetto state there were signs of new life pulsating.”6 Furthermore, the new Greenville Female College president asserted, “The horrors of the withering curse of so-called Reconstruction were fast becoming forgotten. Business was reviving, the building of cotton mills in the Piedmont had begun, and everywhere the cry was ‘we must educate, educate.’”7 Townes used the advantageous location of Greenville to attract students, and stated in an advertisement in The Baptist Courier, “It is a great mistake to confine the education of a girl simply to her text books and teachers. In Greenville she is most favorably environed.” He went on to reference the excellent Sunday schools and forms of entertainment that contributed to a well-rounded and cultured female student.8
Townes had ambitious plans for improving the College at the early stages of his tenure. A couple of the primary objectives included increasing overall enrollment, improving the curriculum, encouragement of student organizations, and improving boarding facilities. The wellbeing of his students, who referred to their president as “Prof,” was certainly on the forefront of Townes’ mind, and sometimes his personal generosity in helping students afford the College’s tuition led to conflicts with trustees.9 Author Judy Bainbridge states, “A cultured and educated man, he evidently had excellent relationships with both students and teachers throughout his years at the Greenville Female College, although his relationship with Furman’s trustees became progressively more strained.”10 The primary reason for the troubled relationship between Townes and the trustees was financially related. However, the fiscal struggles were not related to unnecessary expenses nor did they imply that Townes promoted extravagance. In the Greenville Female College Catalogue for the academic year 1885-1886, Townes asserted, “It is a great mistake to suppose that while attending College in Greenville fine or expensive dressing is expected,” and proceeded to state, “Pupils boarding at the College are not allowed to wear expensive jewelry, and parents are respectfully requested not to indulge their daughters in this taste.”11 While Townes inability to meet the trustees’ financial standards may have ultimately led to his departure from the Greenville Female College, his monetary struggles cannot be attributed to unnecessary expenses or extravagance.
One of Townes’ most significant objectives was achieving equality in women’s education. His ambitions for women’s education at the Greenville Female College coincided with the goal described in this statement by Randolph-Macon College’s trustees in 1891: “To establish…a college…where the dignity and strength of fully-developed faculties and the charm of the highest literature culture may be acquired by our daughters without loss to woman’s crowning glory- her gentleness and grace.”12 In an article published in The Baptist Courier in 1894, Townes argues against the use of the word “female” in the college’s title, citing that the word is representative of times in which women’s education was viewed as significantly inferior to men’s education. Townes asserts, “Why not simply erase ‘Female’ and leave the name, as suggested, ‘Greenville College.’ We do not need ‘Furman University for Men,’ or, ‘Furman Men’s University.’”13 This quote reflects Townes’ concern for equality in education and his genuine dedication to improving the unjust conditions surrounding women’s education in the late 19th century.
One fundamental reason for the growth and success of the Greenville Female College under Townes’ leadership was the core of faculty members who exercised the values of the institution. An important modification during the Townes era was the transition from part-time faculty (usually from Furman University) to a nucleus of full-time faculty members. In addition to presiding over the college as its President, Townes taught mathematics, logic, and moral philosophy.14 The role and influence of Mary Camilla Judson, sister of former Greenville Female college president, Charles Judson, was extremely important both in academics and student life. Townes wrote of Mary Camilla Judson, “no matter what she taught, no student in her classes left the Greenville Female College in those years without carrying away on her mind the lasting impress of a great teacher.”15 Bainbridge emphasizes the dynamic role of the woman by asserting, “Mary Judson was an inspirational teacher who combined a sense of humor with a deep concern for the young women from villages and farms of upstate South Carolina.”16
Perhaps one of Townes’ greatest accomplishments was his suggestion that a literary society should be started for the young women of the college. This society was named The Judson Society, after Charles Judson, and the meetings were presided over by Mary Camilla Judson.17 The Judson Society encouraged women to speak publicly, an aspect of the society, which was scrutinized by both Furman University students and Baptist elders.18 Although there is no specific reference to Alexander Townes or Mary Camilla Judson directly advocating women’s suffrage during the late 19th century, it can be inferred that both figures would support the movement, though perhaps not explicitly. In referring to Mary Camilla Judson, Bainbridge asserts, “While her Christian feminism had to deal discreetly with the social attitudes of the time and place, she nevertheless imbued generations of young women with an understanding of equality and a faith in their own potential.”19 Townes’ encouragement of a student organization that endorsed the public speaking of women in addition to the dynamic combination of Townes and Mary Camilla Judson in promoting the advancement and equality of women’s education are reflective of the progressive nature of the Greenville Female College during Townes’ presidency. Another significant innovation enacted under Townes’ tenure was the creation of a comprehensive curriculum that required students to complete seven different “schools” to attain the degree of “full graduate.”20 In addition, under Townes’ leadership the Greenville Female College awarded its first Bachelor of Arts degree to its students.21 The creation of a diverse and broad education with greater levels of coherency and organization resulted in a more successful curriculum at the college.
Towards the end of Townes’ tenure as president of the Greenville Female College, he published an article in The Baptist Courier titled, “To the Baptists of South Carolina,” in which he states, “The writer does not believe he received his commission to teach from the hands of trustees, but from the hands of the same Master who commissions the pastor, the missionary, and every Christian worker.”22 This statement gives light to the ideological differences between Townes and the trustees. An important aspect of this disparity relates to financial standards set by the trustees in which Townes did not meet. Bainbridge states, “Townes’ strengths did not include either money-raising or fiscal management, and he fell behind on his rent payments.”23 Townes’ resignation after sixteen years as president of the Greenville Female College resulted from irresolvable differences between Townes and the trustees.24
Alexander Sloan Townes will be remembered as a kind and caring man who took great strides in the advancement of the Greenville Female College, in addition to making significant contributions towards the goal of equality for women’s education as a whole. Furthermore, although it is apparent that Townes’ accomplishments with regard to education receive more notice than his influence in the Baptist community, his obituary states, “He was an active member of the First Baptist Church, for many years a teacher in the Sunday school, and a liberal supporter of all the denominational enterprises.”25 Those who truly knew Townes appreciated and respected his strength of character and his dedication to what he believed was just and right. At the Greenville Female College, Townes will be remembered for his extensive contributions to the institution, which include the implementation of The Judson Society, curriculum changes such as “full graduation requirements” and the first Bachelor of Arts Degree, and his personal generosity in making enrollment in the Greenville Female College possible for all qualified young women regardless of their financial situation. The cultured man was ultimately successful in pulling the struggling college out of the depths of Reconstruction and developing a thriving institution with great advancements in women’s education.
Written by Jack Lentz
3This college in Rome, Georgia is now Shorter College.
4Judith T. Bainbridge. Academy and College: The History of the Woman’s College of Furman University. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001), 74.
5H.T. Cook. “Alexander Sloan Townes”. The Baptist Courier. 10 March 1910, 5.
6Judith T. Bainbridge. Academy and College: The History of the Woman’s College of Furman University. (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2001), 73.
8 A.S. Townes. “Greenville Female College” Advertisement. The Baptist Courier. 5 January 1893, 3; 7-8.
9Judith T. Bainbridge. Academy and College: The History of the Woman’s College of Furman University. (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2001), 73.
11A.S. Townes. Catalogue of Greenville Female College, Greenville, S.C. For the Session of 1885-6. With Announcements for 1886-7. (Greenville, S.C.: Hoyt and Keys, Book and Job Printers, 1886), 17.
12Frederick Rudolph. The American College and University, A History. (New York: Knopf, 1962), 328.
13A.S. Townes. “Woman Her Education and Her College”. The Baptist Courier. 10 May 1894, 2; 4.
14Judith T. Bainbridge. Academy and College: The History of the Woman’s College of Furman University. (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2001), 75.
20Elizabeth Robertson Alford. The Story of Our Mother, Told by a Daughter. Bulletin. Greenville Womans College, 23, no. 2, Feb. 1925. Greenville, SC, 60.
21Courtney L. Tollison. Furman University. Campus History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2004, 23.
22A.S. Townes. “To the Baptists of South Carolina”. The Baptist Courier. 2 July 1894, 2; 7.
23Judith T. Bainbridge. Academy and College: The History of the Woman’s College of Furman University. (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2001), 93.
24After resigning Townes opened an independent college called the Greenville College for Women on his personal property close to the Greenville Female College campus. The two colleges competed for several years and suggest a bitter departure from the Greenville Female College. Elizabeth Robertson Alford. The Story of our Mother, Told by a Daughter. Bulletin: Greenville Womans College, 23, no.2, Feb. 1925. Greenville, SC, 62.
25“Alexander S. Townes” Obituary. The Baptist Courier. 2 December 1909, 5; 1.