Amelia Perry Pride’s Steadfast Quest for Equity in—and Beyond—Home Economics
By: Emily Mook | Photos by Ashlee Glen
“I would rather wear out working among all classes of my race than to rust out seeing so much to be done.” – Amelia Perry Pride (in a letter to Orra Langhorne, 1899)
Although she was one of Lynchburg’s most groundbreaking, altruistic, and inspiring citizens, Amelia Perry Pride is not as well-known as she should be.
“During her time, everybody knew her, and yet today, I feel like nobody knows her,” said Ted Delaney, Director of the Lynchburg Museum System.
Perhaps this is partially the case because Pride, a free biracial woman born in Lynchburg in 1857, did not seem to be concerned with her own prominence. A monumentally generous and seemingly tireless philanthropist, Pride focused her energies on bettering the lives of others—particularly people of color who were less fortunate than she—rather than on widely broadcasting her own name and achievements. Additionally, Pride was more concerned with practical matters of equity and equality than with outright innovation. It also cannot go without saying that the accomplishments of people of color are routinely and unjustly undervalued.
Whatever the reasons may be for Pride’s relative lack of present-day recognition, her story is unquestionably worth knowing and celebrating. Among her most remarkable endeavors are her founding and running of the Theresa Pierce Cooking School, which ultimately became the basis for the public home economics curriculum for Lynchburg City Schools.
Born to biracial parents and orphaned by the age of 16, Pride demonstrated early abilities to take care of, motivate, and challenge herself. After attending local schools as a child, she continued her education at the highly esteemed Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (known today as Hampton University) and graduated in 1879 from the teachers’ education program. Upon her graduation, Hampton immediately hired Pride to teach a group of Native American girls through its missionary program. Over the next decade, she taught at various Lynchburg public schools, including Polk Street Colored School, Old Payne School, and Jackson Street School, and she went on to serve as the principal of Polk Street School from 1890 to 1911. She was one of the first Black women employed by the Lynchburg School system. Pride also established The Dorchester Home (a retirement home for elderly Black women) in 1897, the McKenzie Sewing School (a free sewing school for Black children) in 1898, and the Theresa Pierce Cooking School (a free cooking school for Black girls) in 1903.
The Theresa Pierce Cooking School was held in a house owned by Pride and her husband, Claiborne Gladman Pride, and located on Madison Street across from the couple’s home. Its name evinces a common practice of that time period.
“[A white couple named] Wallace and Stella Pierce donated money to Amelia Pride to start the school in memory of their deceased daughter, Theresa,” Delaney noted. “At Hampton Institute, each student was sponsored by someone, and students were expected to write their sponsors letters. Sponsors were typically white people in the North trying to help Black people in the South. Amelia Pride herself was expected to write letters to her sponsors to update them on what she was working on. She had this model of how you were supposed to do things: Get sponsors to underwrite your projects and keep in touch with them. It was very natural and normal for her to make contact with Wallace Pierce, get him to underwrite the school, and name the school after his daughter.”
In fact, Pride was generally extremely adept and resourceful when it came to using her identity as an affluent biracial individual to enact positive change.
“Another thing she was very skilled at was, through her connections to the white community, getting white people to donate to her causes and being able to walk that line,” stated Delaney. “She was in a socioeconomic class where she could socialize with white people and gain their support while at the same time—because she was considered ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’ by the society of that time—she had full reign to work, lead, and start initiatives in Black communities. She used her position—which was very much on the line of race—to navigate both worlds.”
Although there are no rosters or other data sources indicating the number or ages of students who attended the cooking school, Delaney believes that students likely ranged in age from about eight years old (old enough to follow a basic recipe) to 15-20 years old (old enough to get work on their own). That said, he also thinks that Pride would have been unlikely to turn adults in need of basic cooking instruction away.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she had some adults in the classes,” he said. “She was so equal opportunity. Whoever was in need, she was going to help.”
According to Delaney, Pride’s granddaughter Miriam Pride Kyle said her grandmother was committed to helping families learn how to grow and prepare nutritious foods. An avid gardener herself, Pride insisted on adding a garden to the grounds of Polk Street School to facilitate this learning and took matters into her own hands when her request was initially denied.
“The school board denied her request to plow a plot of land behind Polk Street School,” Kyle recalled in 1981. “She got a horse and plow and proceeded to do it herself. It was reported immediately and a man was sent out to do it. She taught gardening to pupils and canning to their parents.”
Pride’s focus on imparting essential skills also applied to her curriculum for the Theresa Pierce Cooking School.
“As far as I’m aware, there was nothing particularly revolutionary about her cooking and she didn’t have a signature dish,” said Delaney. “At that time, she was really worried that there were young people—and even older people—who maybe had been enslaved, were now on their own, and had never been taught things as basic as boiling water. She really focused on the core principles of cooking and being able to feed yourself. Reading her letters and articles that she sent to [Hampton Institute periodical] The Southern Workman, I think that in everything—cooking, sewing,
The Dorchester Home—she was really about imparting those fundamental life skills that many of us take for granted and assume that everyone knows or has the opportunity to learn at home with family.”
The Theresa Pierce Cooking School was transferred to Virginia Theological Seminary and College (known today as the Virginia University of Lynchburg) during the 1916-1917 school year. An excerpt from the College’s 1920-1921 catalog (seen to the left) outlines Pierce’s (likely somewhat modified) curriculum.
In 1949, 17 years after Pride’s death, Lynchburg City Schools created a new home economics building at Dunbar High School and named it the Amelia Pride Center in Pride’s honor.
“The oral history is that her cooking school and curriculum were generally integrated into the public schools here for Black students,” Delaney noted.
Today, the Amelia Pride Center is part of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation campus, and it houses continuing education and alternative secondary education programs. Pride’s steadfast legacy lives on, and her name is one we should all feel proud to know.
“She was in command at all times!” Kyle said of Pride in 1981. “It was often said of her: ‘When Mrs. Amelia Perry Pride walks down the street, the street has been walked down.’ I’m sure she could have persuaded the rattles off a snake if she had to in order to help someone.”
“She strikes me as one of the hardest-working, most productive people who lived in Lynchburg,” stated Delaney. “Starting schools, starting an old folks’ home, and taking on the many other initiatives that she took on were not easy tasks by any means. These are major accomplishments, and they require not only your own hard work and investment, but also the ability to mobilize other people and to get other people to follow your vision and support you. It’s really amazing to see how much she accomplished and to think about the forces she was able to marshal to support her work. She was an incredible woman in this community.”