Alexandria History

Education in Early Alexandria

From the Office of Historic Alexandria

Alexandria, VA – With the return to school this month, we take a look back at education in early Alexandria. Most of Alexandria’s educational history focuses on the Alexandria Academy, founded in 1785, but the push to educate young Alexandrians started earlier.

In a letter to his brother in 1747 or ‘48, John Carlyle expressed a desire for his children to receive an English education. Without it, Carlyle feared they would fall into the vices of alcohol and gambling he saw rampant in Alexandria. But Carlyle and like-minded Alexandria residents would have to wait 14 years for the first school; even then, the school was private.

In 1760 the Maryland Gazette mentioned that “a lottery will be held in Alexandria for…erecting a grammar school….” Alexandria was then part of Fairfax County. The Fairfax County Court authorized the building of the schoolhouse. Records show that the building stood on the corner of Cameron Street and North Fairfax.

On July 14, 1763, William Ramsay, recently arrived in Alexandria from Scotland, placed an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette, offering his services as a schoolmaster. The ad stated that the school could house 14 boys and the schoolmaster was known for his “Industry, Sobriety, and Knowledge in the Languages.” Ramsay offered students “Schooling, Board, Washing and Lodging, and plenty of Fire-Wood.”

But by 1767, the building had fallen into disrepair. The Alexandria trustees allocated more than 135 pounds sterling to repair the building but noted that “It appears to us that the House has been very much injured by the negligence of the School Masters.” It is assumed that the grammar school continued operation until the end of the colonial period.

In addition to the grammar school, music teachers Thomas Sterling and Thomas Hookins advertised their services to boys interested in learning “the Military Musick of the Fife and Drum.” They charged one-half guinea to join their classes and one guinea per month for each instrument they taught.

One private grammar school and two music teachers seem like a small number given the size of Alexandria at the time. By comparison, 14 teachers advertised their services in Annapolis between 1754 and 1772, despite Alexandria’s larger population.

In 1785, after the Revolutionary War, Alexandria sought to rectify that imbalance. A board of 13 prominent male citizens met to found the Alexandria Academy. George Washington was a board member and promised the school 50 pounds annually upon his death to pay for the education of orphans or children whose parents were too poor to pay tuition. Washington’s papers indicate that girls were allowed to receive instruction at the school but “not to exceed one girl to four boys.”

The Alexandria Academy building still stands on the corner of Wolfe and South Washington. Also known as the Washington Free School, the academy left the building during the War of 1812. After the war, free African Americans established a school on the building’s third floor. The Rev. James Hanson, the White minister of the Black Methodist Episcopal Church, taught over 300 students between the school’s opening and the sale of the building in 1823.

Education in Alexandria came in fits and starts. Newspaper ads in colonial Alexandria and colonial Annapolis indicate that education in Port City had a lower priority than in Maryland’s capital. But the inclusion of girls in the Alexandria Academy and the later opening of a school for free African American students show that education took on greater importance over time, even as the schools reflected the inequalities of the period.

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