Celestia Susannah Parrish

By Neil G. Payne, from The Quill Pen, No. 8, February 1984, Pittsylvania Historical Society, Chatham, Virginia, pp. 3-5.

Celestia Susannah Parrish

“…the rich feasts which are spread before you….”

From “rags to riches” describes well the career of Celestia Susannah Parrish, but it does not refer to money set aside or worldly goods collected.

The “rags” in her career tell of a young girl, with minimal education, faced with the need to make her own way in the world.

Her “riches” came much later in life, at a time when her enormous mental capacity earned for her the admiration of educators both here and abroad.

Born to middle-class parents in September, 1853, Celestia attended briefly the Callands Academy near Swansonville in Pittsylvania County [Virginia].

Her attendance there created in her unquenchable thirst for college training. Satisfying them took time.

Grief at the deaths of both parents was compounded by loss of the family property. Celestia, at age 10, went to live with relatives, where she received some schooling at the hands of her two aunts.

After a period of five years, the young girl realized that her food and shelter was a burden her kin would no longer shoulder. At their insistence she tried to create a class from neighborhood children and to coach them despite her lack of teaching skills. In this she failed utterly.

The responsibility of caring for herself and her younger sister distorted her aim in life. At that time her energies were directed toward making all the money possible — this overshadowed her previous, more level-headed resolve to improve her professional art and her store of general knowledge.

The real beginning of Celestia's teaching career stemmed from an entire night devoted to reading a book. This single volume so inspired her that, weary from lack of sleep, she knelt in the first light of day and vowed to bend every effort to improve herself culturally and professionally.

The book, Theory and Practice of Teaching, by Page, thereby seemed to sponsor an amazing career.

Celestia was able to recruit a small number of children from the Callands area. She diligently taught them basic skills in an effort to achieve her ultimate goal — education and a chance to benefit her students.

A visit to Chatham and a chance meeting with Dr. George Dame, Superintendent of Schools in Pittsylvania County, had a profound influence on young Miss Parrish. He was so impressed with her ability and eagerness to learn that he assigned her a school in Swansonville — a log cabin on the Swanson farm.

Five years were spent in this assignment and among her pupils was Claude A. Swanson, governor-to-be of Virginia.

An offer to teach in Danville was accepted by the budding educator, making it possible to attend Roanoke Female College (later Averett University). She also enrolled her sister, Mentora, there.

During these formative years the great mental capacity of the maturing girl became evident. She committed to memory long passages from the Bible, and many pages from texts on history, botany and other subjects.

It would appear that these feats were accomplished with ease. Not so! When long hours of concentration dulled her senses, splashing cool water on her face would revive her to continue her studies.

Through it all, her prayer was to teach so that her efforts would be a blessing to her pupils. Before hundreds of classes it appears her prayers were answered many times over. She fired her students with intellectual ambition and a zeal for usefulness.

A summer of study at the University of Virginia preceded her return to Danville. There she was given a teaching position at the Female College, but soon moved to a new state normal school which had opened at Farmville [now Longwood University], as a student. Soon she joined the faculty.

At the age of 38 she became a student at the University of Michigan and in one session mastered all the courses in mathematics offered there, and also took a course in astronomy!

Miss Parrish moved to a position at Randolph-Macon Woman's College at Lynchburg. Here she continued to inspire her classes to excel in their studies, and, in summer sessions at Cornell University, qualified for a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Dr. Cunningham, president of a college where she instructed, said, “Miss Parrish has the clearest mind and the greatest ability to weed out the non-essential that I have ever come in contact with.”

During one of several stays at Cornell, Celestia appealed to her professor for special instruction in psychology to bolster what she saw as a weakness in that field. He turned a deaf ear to every plea.

Incensed at his refusal, she said, “A man who sits down to the rich feasts which are spread before you has no right to deny a few crumbs to a poor starveling like me!” Did he relent? He did.

After ten years at Randolph-Macon as head of the department's of psychology and pedagogy, she went to the State Normal School at Athens, Georgia as head of the pedagogy department. Years later she was offered the position of rural state supervisor of the north Georgia district. The principles of teaching she evolved there engendered some criticism, but they remain in effect in the more enlightened society of today.

A grant of $40,000, which she used to help needy students, was given to Miss Parrish. It provided for an examination of her mental facilities after death.

Celestia Parrish died at Clayton, Georgia, September 7, 1918. Speaking at her rites, Dr. M. L. Brittain, State Superintendent of Schools, said, “She was Georgia's greatest woman.”

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