Tahlequah, Okla. — Really, how did I not know about Seminary Hall? Not only is it a terrific building—a red-brick-Romanesque confection of arches and gables and towers crowning a hill on Northeastern State University’s campus here—but its story is as compelling as any in higher education.
It’s a story much older than the university, which celebrated its centennial last year, and older even than the current Seminary Hall, which dates to 1889. It starts in 1850 with the Cherokee Nation’s establishment of two seminaries, one for boys and other for girls, in the territory to which thousands of Cherokees had been forcibly relocated by the federal government a dozen years before.
The seminaries were both within a few miles of Tahlequah, but it’s the women’s institution from which the university descends. The seminary, which graduated its first 12 students in 1855, closed and reopened several times because of the Civil War and financial problems. But by the late 1870s the principal teacher, Ann Florence Wilson, oversaw a thriving institution that was one of the Cherokee Nation’s proudest accomplishments. One historian says the nation “had a better common-school system than either Arkansas or Missouri.”
In 1887, however, a fire swept through the seminary’s building, and by the time it burned out only some brick porch columns and a few half-tumbled walls remained. The following year 1,500 people attended the laying of the cornerstone for a handsome new structure here in Tahlequah. When the building opened it housed students on its upper floors, while classrooms filled the lower floors.
Alumnae of the era recalled having endured a strict education. Principal Wilson was known for requiring girls to come up to the front of the classroom to explain how they had solved math problems as well as for leading them on long brisk walks. In the dining room, the girls’ manners were corrected by faculty members or older students.
In 1907, however, Oklahoma became a state, and the Cherokee Nation’s authority was greatly diminished—among other things, the state took over responsibility for education. In 1909 Oklahoma bought the seminary for $40,000 and established a normal school in the building.
Cherokee women continued to attend—later joined by Cherokee men—but in comparatively small numbers. Even though Tahlequah remains the Cherokee Nation’s capital, the university’s Cherokee heritage was for many years remembered largely in the name of its sports teams, the Redmen. (In 2006 the university adopted the name Riverhawks instead.)
As the university approached its centennial, however, it moved to celebrate its Cherokee past. Seminary Hall was beautifully renovated and an imposing statue of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, was erected in front. It is encircled by columns that support a ring decorated with the syllabary itself. It’s a spacious, fitting monument, not only to the man but to a people who have held education in high regard throughout a harsh history.
Some distance away stand two brick columns. Peer at the bases and you learn that one was constructed of bricks from the old male seminary, which burned in 1910, and the other (left) of bricks from the original female seminary. They’re not shiny or new or even particularly impressive—just old bricks that were once part of two buildings put up long ago with the highest of hopes. And somehow they seemed to me like an even more meaningful monument.Return to Top