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Mary Connelly (1835?–1908)

Mary Connelly was an early educator in southern Arkansas. Operating a school first in Camden (Ouachita County) and later in Arkadelphia (Clark County), she helped establish the latter city’s reputation as an educational center.

Mary Connelly was born to the Reverend Henry Connelly and Jane Johnson Connelly in Newburgh, New York; her exact date of birth is unknown. The oldest of eleven children, she graduated from the Presbyterian-affiliated Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1855.

Connelly worked in Camden during the Civil War as a teacher. At the outbreak of the war, she was teaching at a private school in the town and was unable to secure transportation home to New York. She remained in Camden for the duration of the war. She moved to Arkadelphia in 1866 and took a position at the private school operated by Samuel Stevenson. She was tasked with leading the classes for female students, while male students were taught by Stevenson and other instructors. The building was the first in Clark County built specifically for educational purposes. The schools operated on a tuition system.

Three years later, Connelly bought the school from Stevenson and renamed it the Arkadelphia Female Academy. Located at the corner of 9th and Pine streets, the school offered a number of secondary and college-level courses. Subjects taught included classical and modern languages, music, and art. Connelly’s younger sisters Anna and Jo taught at the school, though Anna died from pneumonia after the 1870–71 academic year. The classes were typically taught by female teachers educated in the east. At least one male teacher was employed by Connelly, and he taught Greek and Latin.

Connelly’s school attracted the daughters of well-to-do families from Clark County and other surrounding communities. When she first moved to Arkadelphia, there was some concern with having a northerner teach the children of the city, but Connelly was quickly accepted by the community. Concerts and other performances were often carried out by the students of the college as fundraisers to buy books for the library.

Connelly was a member of First Presbyterian Church of Arkadelphia, where she served in the Air Society, which did mission work both locally and abroad. She taught Sunday school and tutored several male students who were not allowed to attend regular classes. She also founded the first library in the town, called the Athena Library.

The Arkadelphia Female College closed in 1874, and the building continued to be used as a school. A public school under the direction of Fannie Cook operated in the building. The school was near the location of the first public high school in Arkadelphia, which was located at the site of the former Arkansas Institute for the Blind and at the present-day location of Ouachita Baptist University.

Connelly moved to Bardstown, Kentucky, where she opened another school and operated it for more than twenty years. Never having married, she retired to her home in Newburgh, New York, in 1898, where she died in July 1908 after a short illness; she was buried in Brooklyn on July 29, 1898.

For additional information:
Marbury, Myrtle. “A Partial History of the Public Schools of Arkadelphia.” Clark County Historical Journal (1989): 113–126.

Newberry, Farrar. Through the Eyes of Farrar Newberry: Clark County Arkansas. Arkadelphia: AR: Clark County Historical Association, 2002.

———. “The Yankee Schoolmarm Who ‘Captured’ Post-War Arkadelphia.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 17 (Autumn 1958): 265–271.

Olive, Kathy. “Education in Clark County after the Civil War.” Clark County Historical Journal (1989): 17–25.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated 5/27/2017

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