Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bloomfield Academy, 1926 - 1927

Introduction: This post is an excerpt from the book I'm writng about my mother, Wenonah. I'm writing it in her voice, and although I'm not nearly as good with words as she was, the stories are as close as I can get to the way she told them. She told me about her experiences at Bloomfield over and over again. She was proud of having been a student there. The excerpt is a little long for a blog, but I couldn't figure a way to split it into smaller bites. I've put in a few explanatory comments in parentheses.

For anyone interested in a more comprehensive history of Bloomfield, I highly recommend Amanda Cobb Greetham's book, Listening to Our Grandmothers' Stories.


During the summer of 1926, while Snip was campaigning to be elected to the state legislature, a lady from the Indian Field Service came to visit Mamma and Pappa. Her name was Mrs. Reeder. She had come to talk to them about sending one of us to the Bloomfield Academy, a Chickasaw boarding school for girls in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

(Snip was the family's nickname for one of my mother's older brothers, Homer Paul. He was elected to the Oklahoma State House of Representatives in 1926, and at the time was the youngest man ever elected to the House. He was 21.) 

Mrs. Reeder made a good impression on Mamma and Pappa. She told them that Bloomfield had high standards, and that in addition to academic subjects they taught manners, etiquette, and "industrial arts," which including laundering , sewing, gardening, dairying, and housekeeping. Mrs. Reeder also emphasized that the school gave young Indian girls an opportunity to be with others who shared a common heritage. She and her husband were both Chickasaw, and their two daughters, Julia and Sophia, attended the school.  

After Mamma and Pappa had talked with Mrs. Reeder for a while, they asked me to come in and meet her. She asked me if I would be interested in going to a school for Indian girls, and I was thrilled to death. I was tired of feeling different from the other girls in Pauls Valley, and the idea of going to a school for Indian girls sounded too good to be true. In fact I was so excited that Mamma had to calm me down. I remember her telling me, "Jim, Indians are just like anybody else. They're just people." Pappa was tickled at the way I reacted, but he didn't seem as impressed with the idea of my going to an Indian boarding school as Mamma was. I guess he was remembering his own boarding school days. Mamma and Pappa didn't push me either way though. They let me decide, and I told them I wanted to go.  

Of course the other thing I was thinking about was Grandpa. He was living in the old soldiers' home in Ardmore, and I imagined that I could visit him whenever I wanted.

(My mother's grandfather was a veteran of the Confederacy and in 1926 he lived at a Confederate veterans' home in Ardmore. My mother was his namesake - her first name was James, and she was his favorite among the grandchildren. She adored him.) 

When Kaliteyo found out about the plan, she begged Mamma to let her go to St. Elizabeth's, another Chickasaw girl's school located in Purcell. Bloomfield only went to the eighth grade, but St Elizabeth's went all the way through high school. Our cousin Mildred McClure, Iman's daughter, attended St. Elizabeth's, and she had told Kaliteyo all about it. Kalteyo told Mamma that if I got to go away to school she should be able to go too, so it was settled. We both went to boarding schools that year.

(Kaliteyo was my mother's older sister. Iman McClure was Pappa's first cousin, and they were very close. His father was Tecumseh McClure - see other blogs which mention Tecumsey McClure.) 

While Kaliteyo and I were waiting for school to start, we tried to get Pappa to teach us some Chickasaw words. He spoke the language fluently - he used to speak it with Iman and Uncle Buck - but he refused. He just laughed and told us it wasn't important. Finally we got him to teach us to count to ten: chufa, tuklo, tuchina, oshta, tulhapi, hunali, ontuklo, ontukchina, chukali, pokoli.   

When the time came to leave home, Mamma packed my trunk. I got to take my roller skates and my ukulele, and Mamma made me two new dresses. One was a nice dress for special occasions. Mamma had embroidered flowers on the front of it, and there was a sash that hung down the back. The other dress had a checkered pattern and was nice, but was more of an every day dress. The only problem was that Mamma gave me orders to wear union suits under my pretty dresses. I liked to never got out of those union suits.

("Union Suits" were long handled underwear.) 

On the day we left for school, I hugged and kissed everybody goodbye, and Willie drove me down to Bloomfield. After the matron signed me in, Willie left, and I started to feel alone. I was still excited about getting to visit Grandpa though, and that kept my spirits up.

(Willie was my mother's oldest brother. He stayed at home and helped support the family instead of getting married or going to college.) 

That evening after supper Mrs. Hill, the matron, took me back to the main residential building where I would be living, and started telling me the school rules. One of them was that I wouldn't be allowed off campus, except for an official school activity.  

I asked her if that meant I couldn't go visit Grandpa, and she said that it did. Well that did it for me. I told Mrs. Hill that if I couldn't go to see Grandpa I wanted to go home. I cried and demanded that she call my mother. When she refused, I cried all the harder. She tried to get me to go upstairs to bed, but I wouldn't budge. I demanded that she call Mamma. After much pleading on Mrs. Hill's part and crying on mine, I finally agreed to go upstairs, but only if I could talk to the school superintendant the next morning.  

Even after agreeing to stay, I still didn't want to go upstairs. At that point Mrs. Hill began to insist. I still remember my trip up the stairs. I would take a step up and then turn around to go back, and Mrs. Hill would slap my bottom. Then another step and another slap, all the way up the stairs.  

In the morning Mrs. Hill was true to her word, and she took me in to see the superintendant, Miss Allen. I remember that meeting like it was yesterday. Miss Allen seemed to tower over me. I met her years later and she was actually a small woman, but at the time she seemed like a giant. Miss Allen listened patiently as I explained to her that the only reason I had agreed to come to Bloomfield was so I could visit my Grandpa, and since I couldn't, I wanted to go home. Miss Allen was very kind. She told me that my mother had sent me there to go to school, and that she would want me to stay. She asked me to just try it out for a month, and then if I still wanted to go home she would call my mother.    

(Eleanor Allen was superintendent of Bloomfield for 15 years. She maintained high standards for the school, and seemed to my mother at least to be wise and compassionate.) 

Miss Allen's strategy worked. I had settled down a little anyway since the night before, and although I was still upset, what she said made sense to me, so I agreed to stay for a month. I was home sick, but I also enjoyed going to school and being with the other girls. Mamma wrote me letters, and Willie sent me a little sewing basket filled with candy.

                                      Sewing basket, 1926

Every Friday was letter day, and we were all required to write a letter home. Some of the girls complained about writing letters and said that the teachers told them what to write, but I looked forward to letter day. Here's a letter I wrote to Mamma on Valentine's Day, 1927. It was sent to her along with my grades:  

Mother this the report for January. I am getting along just fine. I couldn't write you last Sunday because I couldn't get a stamp. But I will write next Sunday if I can get a stamp. Your Loving Daughter, Wenonah Paul.

Bloomfield was a beautiful school. Everything was neat and clean, and the buildings were well maintained. There was a lake out in front of the main building with an island in the center of it. There was a stage on the Island, and we put on plays and musical performances there.

Cement walkways connected the buildings on the Bloomfield campus, and there were pergolas over the walks covered by pretty flowering vines. Sometimes we were allowed to rollerskate on the walks, so I got to use my roller skates. Ardmore seemed to have a milder climate than Pauls Valley. It never got very cold or very hot there, and it didn't snow all winter.   

My room was in the main building. The little girls stayed there, and also the girls who only spoke Chickasaw or Choctaw. The hospital was also in the main building so the school nurse, Mrs. Wright, worked there. She was Choctaw and since the Chickasaw and Choctaw languages are almost the same, she could talk to all the girls who didn't speak English. 

I really wanted to learn to speak Chickasaw, but the school was trying to force the girls to use English, so they had a rule against speaking an Indian language. There was an old Chickasaw man who did maintenance work around the school who taught me a few words though, and I learned more from the other girls on laundry day. The mangle in the laundry room made a lot of noise, and we would hide behind it and speak Chickasaw. I still remember a few words they taught me, like chukma - hello, and minti - come here.  

That was one of my jobs, to work in the laundry room. The girls did most of the maintenance work at Bloomfield, and we were each assigned to work details. In addition to the laundry, there was clean up, kitchen duty, gardening, gathering eggs, and milking. Only the older girls got to milk the cows. They were called "milk maids," and they got to wear white smocks. I wanted so much to be a milk maid. Later I got the job of milking our cow at home. I should have been careful what I wished for. 

Every month the school published a newsletter, and I still have one of them. It is dated March 27, 1927:  

It begins with an editorial by one of our teachers:  

We are glad to welcome springtime again for with it comes the sweet perfumed flowers and the happy birds. Everywhere life bursts forth in all its beauty. Joy and happiness are everywhere. Yet it is not only earth's springtime but it is the springtime of life for our Bloomfield girls. It is the best and happiest time of their lives. They should try and realize this fact and cultivate in this springtime of youth those things which will enable them to grow into beautiful and useful women. 
Jewell Crummey 

There's an article in the newsletter about US marines being sent to China to protect American citizens from rioting there. Other articles announce plans to enlarge the classrooms and to expand the junior high to include the ninth grade the coming year. Events mentioned include a guest speaker who spoke about Japan and its people, a school dance, and an inspirational talk by a representative from the YWCA. 

Here's an article about Bird Day: 

On March 19th, we had a splendid Bird Day Program given under the direction of Miss Roberts and Mrs. Risser. The entire program was about birds and their help to man. The girls who took part in the play wore bird masks and costumes which made them look very real. There were robins, bluebirds, crows, and owls. Two toads in costume proclaimed themselves as great helpers of man also.   

a report about the school garden:

Gardening has been progressing very well this month. Each eighth grade girl made a garden of her own in which she has planted twenty five different kinds of vegetables. These plants are nearly all well above the ground. The other classes have also worked at planting so that Bloomfield has a garden it can be proud of.  

and a project by the eighth grade girls to redecorate their rooms: 

The eighth grade girls under the direction of Miss Owens, our Home Training Teacher, have completed redecorating their bedrooms. Their first step was to select the color scheme to be used in each room. The varnish was removed from the furniture and it was sandpapered before painting. They have given the walls and woodwork two coats. The floors have been covered with linoleum. The girls have made all the room furnishings including window curtain draperies, bedspreads, dresser scarfs and floor pillows. We expect an invitation to a "house warming" before long.
Ernestine Trout 

There were also articles about visitors, religious activities, illness - some of the girls had measles, news about the girls' families and news from other Chickasaw - Choctaw schools.  

Finally there was the list of girls on the honor rolls for academic and industrial classes. I was on both. I even made a good grade in arithmetic.  

One girl from each dormitory was chosen as nurse to report any girls who were sick, and to help out the school nurse, Mrs. Wright. I was the nurse for my dormitory, and I was very proud of my position. Since the school nurse's office was in my building, I got to help her more than the others did. One of my jobs was to help in processing new students when they first came to school.

After each new girl enrolled, they were required to take a shower and to put on clean, freshly laundered clothes. I was supposed to take each girl to the shower room for her shower, and to check her hair for lice. I felt very important performing this duty, especially since some of the new girls were older and bigger than me. Mrs. Wright gave me a fine toothed comb and a clean white towel. I was to run the comb through the girls' hair, put it on the towel, and then take it straight to Mrs. Wright. I remember how anxious I was to get rid of that towel. 

Since I lived in the main building where the hospital was located, I saw all the girls who were sick. There was one girl I remember who was weak and emaciated when she first came to the school. Mrs. Wright tried to make sure she ate good food, but she continued to get weaker. Finally a doctor from Ardmore was called in to see her.  

The little girl still didn't improve. Then one day an old man came walking up the road. He was the little girl's grandfather, and he was also a tribal healer. The old man had walked all the way from his home. He spoke with Mrs. Wright and then he went in to see his grand daughter. He stayed a long time. When he left I watched him walk back up the road until he was out of sight. The little girl started improving after that, and she finally recovered.  

Health was an important part of Bloomfield's curriculum, and the state of our health was reported monthly to our parents along with our performance in class. The health report included our weight at the beginning and the end of each month, hours of sleep, hygiene, exercise, diet - we were supposed to drink one pint of milk each day along with a helping of fruit, a green leafy vegetable, and six glasses of water.

                                 Bloomfield Health Report, 1927

It was at Bloomfield that I got interested in singing. We had a glee club there and everyone participated. It was one of my favorite classes.   

The cooking and sewing classes at Bloomfield were a challenge for me. I hadn't learned much from Mamma about either except for the little bit of crocheting she taught me when I was sick. My worst grade was in sewing. Our project in sewing class was to make a dress, and the teacher ended up doing most of the work for me. Then there was cooking class. I remember our class on baking a cake. We were supposed to whip the egg whites and then >fold= them into the batter. The other girls all knew what to do, and I remember how horrified they were when I just dumped the egg whites in and started stirring. I did finally learn to fold in egg whites though, and when I came home in the spring Mamma let me bake a cake for the family. I still have the little cook book I made at Bloomfield, and in it is the recipe for that "Standard Cake."

                            Bloomfield Cook Book, 1927

We had a class in basket weaving too. We learned to soak reeds in water to make them pliable and then weave them into baskets. At the end of the year we planted flowers in our baskets and took them home. My flower was a narcissus.  

On May Day we got to go to a park in Ardmore on an outing.  The highlight of the trip was the slide. It was huge, and instead of going straight down, it had a ripple on it. Some of the older girls came prepared with bread wrappers from the bakery for us to sit on to make us go down faster, and they really worked. We got to going so fast that we actually flew up into the air when we went over the ripple.

It wasn't long after that last outing in the park that the school year was over. Snip came to get me, driving his big brown Packard, and I was so glad to see him. I never thought I'd be glad to see Snip. He sat with the parents and watched the school's final presentation for the year, a May Day Festival. I was especially excited because I had been chosen to play the role of Queen of the May.  

The play was performed on the island in front of the main building with the parents sitting around the edge of the lake. The girls were dressed in costumes representing the animals of the forest. They danced around the May Pole holding colorful streamers, and then I was crowned. I wore the pretty dress Mamma had made for me, and a crown of flowers. After the play, we gathered up my stuff: my roller skates, my ukelele, the sewing basket Willy had sent me, my basket with the narcissus planted inside, and my cookbook, and Snip took me home. On the way home he told me that I had done a good job, and that he was proud of me.   

It was so good to be home! Mamma said she was proud of me too. She was especially pleased with my manners, how I said yes ma'am and no ma'am. She even let me help her out with the cooking. Bob and Kaliteyo teased me and started calling me the 'Queen of the May,' but I was glad to see them anyway.  

I didn't go back to Bloomfield the next year. I could have gone there for another two years, and then on to Chilocco for high school. Mamma would probably have let me, but I had just been too homesick. I'm sorry now that I didn't go back. I really felt like I belonged there.

As it was, I came back from Bloomfield a different girl. I was even more proud of my Indian heritage than before; I had developed some manners and domestic skills, and I was ahead of my Pauls Valley classmates academically. That year at Bloomfield was probably what enabled me to graduate from high school a year early.

                                           Bloomfield Academy, 1940