“WILLIAM KNOX TATE—EDUCATIONAL ENGINEER—a fitting title for such an educational force....It was he who fired the wheels of progress, who fired the mind, but best of all really fired ambition, inspiration, interest and enthusiasm. He once said that a teacher’s task was just about over when genuine interest developed. With a vigilance that was unbounded, with a definite goal to reach, he was always using full steam going forward.” Thus Mabel Pollitzer, formerly a student and teacher under Tate at Charleston’s Memminger High and Normal School, characterized the remarkable career of an educational pioneer through whose efforts South Carolina, indeed the larger South, began to embark upon a new era of public school development.
This collection of four hundred thirteen items—correspondence, newspaper clippings, miscellaneous related printed materials—plus two unbound volumes—a scrapbook and a biography written by Howard O. Long in 1952 as a doctoral dissertation—documents the life work of William Knox Tate (1870-1917), with particular emphasis on his years in South Carolina. Born on 8 September 1870 in Grainger County, Tenn., Tate removed with his family while yet a young child to the frontier section of Arkansas, where he graduated from high school at Siloam Springs Academy. He taught for two years near Siloam Springs before entering Arkansas Industrial School, which later became the University of Arkansas. In 1890 he entered Peabody Normal College on scholarship and took his B.A. degree in 1892. He then taught Latin at Tyler High School in Texas, and ultimately was made principal of the same school. Tate pursued graduate studies during the summers at University of Chicago and in 1900 was awarded an honorary Master’s degree by Peabody Normal College.
In 1898 he became principal of Memminger Normal School in Charleston, the first state normal school to be established in the South. Dr. William H. Payne, President of Peabody, had personally recommended Tate for the position at Memminger. Throughout his tenure there Tate was increasingly recognized for his efforts to develop a school library, revise curriculum, introduce domestic science and commercial subjects, and secure funds for a domestic science annex to the school. The annex, which was dedicated in 1908, was named in Tate’s honor after his death.
Writing on 11 May 1908, Henry P. Archer, Superintendent of City Public Schools in Charleston, forwarded resolutions commending Tate’s efforts to improve Memminger, including building construction, acceptance of Peabody Education Fund donations, and study of buildings and equipment for teaching domestic science in other cities. The 3 June 1908 report of the City Board of School Commissioners of the City of Charleston, also signed by Archer, notes that subscriptions in the amount of $6,600 had been raised, just $400 short of Tate’s goal, and indicates that construction would begin in time for the domestic science department to be ready for the next school term. A notice from Augustine T. Smythe, 16 June 1908, prepared on behalf of the Board of Public School Commissioners for the City of Charleston, invites the submission of architectural plans for the construction of “a suitable building on the grounds of the Memminger Normal School...to cost about $7,000.00 within which to install a plant for a Domestic Science Department.”
W.K. Tate remained in the forefront of educational initiatives in South Carolina throughout the first two decades of the twentieth-century. In 1909 he was appointed Assistant Superintendent of City Schools in Charleston and worked to improve the Colored Industrial School and the Mitchell School. A letter of 17 July 1908, from Seth Low, New York, advises Tate that he had been successful only in raising $5,000 pledged toward “an Industrial School building for Negroes, based upon the raising of not less than $20,000.00 and the agreement on the part of the City to support the school.” “The problem,” Low indicated, “is a difficult one for me to handle; for few people will give at my request unless I give myself, and...I am no longer in a position to give for such purposes on a large scale....Those I have talked with seem to think that it is quite essential that the city itself should do something towards the building, and also that the colored people of Charleston should do something for it. In other words, it is thought to be quite necessary to avoid creating the impression that such a school is being foisted upon the community from the outside. If the city would give $5,000.00 to the building, besides undertaking to support it, and if the negroes of Charleston would give as much more, it perhaps might aid me in securing the other $5,000.00 in the North.”
Other letters dating from September 1909 concern plans for building the industrial training school for African-Americans. And an undated report, “The Charleston Public Schools,” presumably issued by Tate ca. 1909, mentions the Industrial School for Colored Children being erected at the corner of President and Fishburne streets—“When completed, this building will cost $25,000.00. Five thousand dollars of this amount has been given by the Peabody Board of Trust and five thousand by Mr. Alfred T. White of New York City whose interest in the project was aroused by the Hon. Seth Low of New York, who once visited the Charleston Schools. The Slater Fund has promised a gift of $3000.00 to assist in the maintenance of the school when it is completed.”
Between 1903 and 1910 Tate also taught in the Summer School of the South at Knoxville, Tenn., and he was actively involved with the formation of the Southern Branch of the American Peace League, being elected second vice-president and secretary in July 1909. A printed broadside from 1904, “Declaration of Principles,” was issued by the Summer School of the South, under sponsorship of the General Education Board, and calls for consolidated and centralized school systems, reconstructed curriculum, rural libraries, and a central teachers college. In 1910 Tate became president of the South Carolina State Teachers’ Association. In addition, he was a member of the State Board of Education from 1904 to 1910.
A major advancement for William Knox Tate came in 1910 when he was named State Supervisor of Elementary Rural Schools in South Carolina. The position was a new one, just having been created as a cooperative venture between the State Department of Education and the Peabody Education Board through its agent, Wickliffe Rose. Rose was a frequent correspondent throughout this period. Writing from Nashville on 4 December 1909, he hinted at the magnitude of the task to which Tate had been called—“It is quite clear to me...that this work for the rural schools of the whole state opens up to you a field for a much larger service. The man who can develop a system of effective country schools in South Carolina will make a contribution not only to his state but to American education. I regard this as the most important educational work now to be done.” Tate recognized the challenge before him as well, responding in a letter of 5 January 1910 that “the organization of the Rural School system in the state of South Carolina is a task which cannot be accomplished in a day. I should not like to have my work adjudged by the results of even the first five years, though I believe a great deal could be done in that space of time.”
A significant unit of letters between Tate, Rose, University of South Carolina president Samuel Chiles Mitchell, Winthrop president David Bancroft Johnson, Superintendent of Education John Eldred Swearingen, and others during the months from December 1909 to June 1910 discuss issues relating to questions of salary, travel funds, secretarial help, whether Tate would be attached to Winthrop or Carolina, and the suggestion that Tate was being considered for the presidency of Clemson, a matter in which the educator insisted he must “be assured of a practical unanimity in my selection.”
While Tate weighed his options, Rose continued to encourage his colleague and friend. “The more I think this over the clearer it is to me that the work of the Elementary State Inspector offers the largest educational opportunity to be found in the State,” he advised on 27 January 1910. “The position is permanent, is free from all political interference, and gives opportunity for creative activity in the highest degree.” University of South Carolina president S.C. Mitchell lent his support as well, writing on 4 February, “I am inclined to think that you will realize within a year that you in fact have the key to the reorganization of Rural Life in S.C. I am filled with hope when I think of your activities in this field, & I shall rejoice in the associations with you. We must be yoke-fellows in the work.” And a letter of 5 February from J.E. Swearingen, Superintendent of Education, declared that the work was the “broadest now claiming attention from school men in South Carolina. In putting it in your hands, I feel confident that every energy will be taken to improve the rural schools of the State.”
Tate’s enthusiasm for the rural schools job is revealed in a letter written on 5 February 1910 to Albert Pike Bourland, another Peabody associate. “I am heartily with you in the plan to make South Carolina a model for the south in her system of rural schools,” Tate commented. “This state in many respects possesses points of superiority over every other southern state in its opportunities for such leadership. It is not so large and can be more easily and quickly reached from a central point.. The coming summer will see an Educational Commission at work on a general revision of the school law. All the educational forces of the state are harmonious and will strive together for a common aim. I am very anxious to talk over the problems with you and to form a comprehensive plan of action. As soon as the details are arranged between Mr. Rose and his Boards on the one hand and Mr. Swearingen and Dr. Mitchell on the other and a memorandum is furnished me of the agreements entered into, I shall announce my acceptance of the new work.”
York County was chosen as the demonstration county in rural supervision, with an aim to convince school officials in other counties of the value of appointing county supervisors. Tate surveyed rural school conditions throughout the state, held conferences with the trustees and patrons of many schools, and introduced measures to improve school facilities, lengthen school terms, stimulate county fairs and field days, consolidate schools, and relieve student transportation problems. Reports such as the “Comparative Statement of Enrollment in Typical Counties of South Carolina 1902 to 1910,” provide insights on “White” and “Colored” enrollment for city and county schools, and the “Quarterly Report of W.K. Tate, State Supervisor of Elementary Rural Schools of South Carolina,” issued on 9 May 1911 reveals that he was inspecting both African-American and white schools and documenting the schools and buildings photographically. Copies of the images reportedly were being sent to the appropriate county superintendent of education and to A.P. Bourland. Leila A. Russell, who had been appointed to supervise rural schools in York County, wrote on 1 March 1912 to report on the conditions and attitudes she encountered as she visited schools throughout the county. “During the bad weather trustees failed to meet me,” she noted. “The average farmer has not been impressed with the importance of his school. His children stay at home in bad weather, the teacher does too sometimes, and so he thinks it is folly for me to visit schools unless the weather is good.”
In 1912 United States Commissioner of Education P.P. Claxton sent Tate to Switzerland to study the Swiss school system, and included among the collection are travel materials from the trip. Results of his international study were published by the United States Bureau of Education in 1914 under the title Some Suggestive Features of the Swiss School System. In 1913 Tate was elected president of the Southern Educational Association, a leadership position from which he advocated the merger of the Southern Educational Association and the Conference for Education in the South. He was elected to the Professorship of Rural Education at George Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn., in 1914. While at Peabody he also lectured in Vanderbilt University’s School of Religion. William Knox Tate died of pneumonia at the age of forty-six on 7 February 1917.