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Dictionary of Virginia Biography


Mary Julia Baldwin (4 October 1829–1 July 1897), educator, was born in the Staunton home of her grandparents John Colson Sowers and Mary Heiskell Sowers. She was the only child of a physician, William Daniel Baldwin, and Margaret Sarah Sowers Baldwin, of Winchester, where she spent the first few months of her life. Her father died of consumption in February 1830, and her mother moved back to Staunton, where Mary Julia Baldwin lived, with a few brief interludes, for the remainder of her life. Baldwin's mother died in May 1837, and she grew up in the home of her prosperous grandparents, surrounded by a large and close extended family, of which her uncle Briscoe Gerard Baldwin formed a part.

When she was four years old Baldwin suffered a high and prolonged fever that permanently paralyzed and twisted the left side of her face. Physicians could do nothing to ease the disfigurement, but although she permitted no portraits or photographs to be made of her face, Baldwin was not morbidly sensitive about it and attended school with other children, actively participated in social activities, and attended the local Presbyterian church. In 1842 she enrolled as one of the first pupils in Rufus William Bailey's new Augusta Female Seminary. Frail-looking and somewhat timid, she often assisted her classmates with difficult assignments and graduated first in her class in 1846. Bailey offered his pupils an excellent education much in advance of that available to most young southern women of the time. He stressed high academic standards, encouraged devotion to Christian precepts and community service, and instilled pride and self-reliance in his students. Baldwin's graduation concluded her formal education, but she spent the winter of 1853–1854 in Philadelphia, studying, reading, and attending concerts and art exhibits.

Baldwin lived with her grandmother on the income of her father's estate. She became a regular and eloquent Sunday School teacher for young women, organized a Sunday afternoon class for black children, and taught her grandmother's slaves to read and write. When the Civil War began, she joined with several of her friends to organize and conduct a girls' school that they called Bee Hive Seminary. To that time, nothing in her life or manner suggested that Baldwin would do other than live out her years as an unmarried southern lady, limited and restricted by the conventions of her era.

That traditional pattern changed in 1863 when the Augusta Female Seminary was in danger of being closed and one of the trustees, Joseph Addison Waddell, persuaded Baldwin to take over as principal of the school and convinced the trustees to hire her. Baldwin borrowed furniture, eating utensils, and dictionaries and other books for the pupils and asked the seventy students to pay their tuition and fees with food and fuel. She persuaded William Holmes McGuffey of the University of Virginia to assist her in revamping the curriculum. The seminary had always been more than a finishing school, but Baldwin aspired to advance it to the level of a university and organized it into seven schools patterned on those of the University of Virginia. The course of study included classical and modern languages, rhetoric, grammar, composition, history, higher mathematics, physics and chemistry, and mental and moral philosophy. She developed an outstanding program in music, stressed the visual arts and elocution, and, as new opportunities for women opened up, added such practical subjects as bookkeeping, nutrition, and calisthenics. Like Bailey before her, she required that her students have a "trained intellect and Christian courage."

Baldwin excelled in administration and had a keen business sense, acquiring valuable pieces of real estate and making shrewd investments. She chose her faculty members carefully and attracted their loyalty, so that several of them stayed at the seminary for their entire professional lives. She trained her students with equal care, encouraging them to share her own sense of intellectual curiosity and seeking to stimulate their sense of service and their religious faith. Baldwin remained at the helm of the seminary for thirty-four years, during which the number of students increased from seventy to two hundred fifty and the school came to be considered one of the most distinguished for young women in the southern states. Its alumnae included missionaries, teachers, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, authors, poets, and feminist reformers. In 1895 Baldwin's contributions to all features of the seminary's success prompted its trustees to obtain permission from the General Assembly to rename the school Mary Baldwin Seminary in "acknowledgement of their high appreciation of the valuable service and unparalleled success of the Principal." In 1922 Mary Baldwin College, as it was then styled, became a fully accredited four-year institution of higher learning and in 2016 it became Mary Baldwin University.

Baldwin's health and vigor deteriorated during the 1890s. She bequeathed her property, which was valued at almost $250,000, to be divided among her family, her church, and the trustees for the benefit of the school, creating the first endowment for the college that bore her name. Mary Julia Baldwin died on 1 July 1897 and was buried in Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton.


Sources Consulted:
Patricia H. Menk, To Live in Time: The Sesquicentennial History of Mary Baldwin College, 1842–1992 (1992); Mary Watters, The History of Mary Baldwin College, 1842–1942 (1942); biographies by people who knew her are in Nellie Hotchkiss McCullough, "Miss Mary Julia Baldwin," Record 2 (Oct. 1898), the college's alumnae publication, and in Joseph A. Waddell, History of Mary Baldwin Seminary (Originally Augusta Female Seminary) from 1842 to 1905 Inclusive (1908), 29–58; Baldwin's application file for admission to Daughters of the American Revolution and other documents and records in Mary Baldwin College Library, Staunton, Va.; obituaries in Staunton Spectator and Vindicator, 8 July 1897 (with summary of will and editorial tribute), and Harrisonburg Rockingham Register, 9 July 1897.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Patricia H. Menk.

How to cite this page:
{author},"{subject name and life dates}," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998, rev. 2017 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Baldwin_Mary_Julia, accessed [today's date]).


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