Summers: Burritt College -- Pioneer of the Cumberlands

Summers: Burritt College -- Pioneer of the Cumberlands

September 4th, 2016 by Jerry Summers in Opinion Columns


Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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In 1848 the Church of Christ established a high school and college on the Cumberland Plateau above Spencer, Tenn. The school was named after Elihu Burritt of Worcester, Massachusetts, who was active in the peace movement opposing the Mexican War of 1848 and helped cause the Church of Christ to leave the Presbyterian Church.

The motto of Burritt College was "Scholarship, Dignity, Worth of Labor, and Service to Man." One of its early brochures described an institution with a "beautiful campus, Christian influence, splendid gymnasium and electric lights."

William Davis Carnes, president of the college in 1850, instituted co-education and a strict moral and religious code, stating "It is God's law that the young of the opposite sexes should exert a healthful influence in the formation of each other's characters, and no place is better suited to this purpose than the classroom and lecture room." A rope down the middle of the chapel separated the sexes, and all communication among young men and women outside classrooms and other supervised events was barred. With his moral code barring swearing, gambling, smoking and drinking, Carnes turned to local law enforcement to hunt down moonshiners and destroy their stills. In an apparent act of retaliation, the president's house and the girls dormitory were burned in 1857.

Burritt closed at the outset of the Civil War in 1861 when many of its students left to fight in the Confederate Army. The college's relative isolation on the plateau protected it during the first half of the war, and it reopened in 1864. Then concerns over Confederate guerrilla activity in the area prompted Union troops to close Burritt and occupy the main hall as barracks and dormitories as stables. At war's end, the buildings and campus were in a state of ruin. The school reopened shortly after the war. During 1870s, the campus more than doubled in size.

Throughout the 19th century, Burritt had provided a classical education, which included Latin and Greek as well as "evidences of Christianity." With mandatory chapel attendance, physical exercise and high standards of discipline, the school attracted students from out of the area whose parents sought discipline, regimented curriculum and good conduct rules. (By the 1920s, the curriculum was overhauled to become more in line with the typical preparatory school having courses in teacher training, bookkeeping, typing and agriculture.)

After various ups and downs, Burritt experienced prosperity by the early 1900s when enrollment stayed above 200, but the opening of Middle Tennessee State in 1911 in Murfreesboro and Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (today's Tennessee Tech) in 1915 in Cookeville hurt enrollment. In the 1930s Burritt became part of the public school system of Van Buren County and thus partially funded, but the building of a county high school and the absence of an endowment at Burritt forced its closure in 1939.

Burritt's history contrasts with the University of the South at the western end of the Cumberland Plateau, which was founded in 1858 and financially supported by the Episcopal Church and its dioceses from the beginning.

The remains of the college and its elementary and high school buildings above Spencer still stand and are depicted in photographs in Marion West's "Pioneer of the Cumberlands, A History of the Burritt College 1848-1898." A Tennessee state commemorative marker at the site states that Burritt College was "established in 1848 through the efforts of Elihu Burritt, a blacksmith who intended that the youth of his community should get the benefits of education denied to him."

The school's reputation for discipline influenced prominent Chattanooga attorney William Raulston Schoolfield to remove his wayward sons, Raulston and James, from Baylor School and send them to Burritt. James received demerits for minor offenses of smoking and leaving church. Raulston was expelled first for refusing to give information on other male students leaving the campus at night. After being readmitted at the request of his father, he promised to the student body not to violate rules again but was expelled finally for improper visiting, misconduct at the border house, obscene language in the gym, talking to a female student as well as in chapel, and missing class.

Following expulsion, Raulston completed no further high school courses but entered and graduated from the Cumberland School of Law and pursued a colorful and controversial law career.

Jerry Summers is a attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rodgers. Frank "Mickey" Robbins, Investment Adviser with Patten and Patten, contributed to this article. For more, visit

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