The Burwell School

Burwell School

This school was created to educate young women from 8 to 18 years of age. It drew local students as well as those from distances as far as Texas and New York. In its 20 year history from 1837 to 1857 it taught women spelling, grammar, geography, arithmetic, writing, philosophy, and chemistry. For an additional cost the student could also receive lessons in painting, drawing, and French.

Gardens Outside the School Building. Note the brick privy.

The student’s day began with prayer and scripture, then exercise which was a walk. After this a breakfast of bread and butter was served. Lessons began after breakfast until 2 p.m. when a larger meal was consumed. Food served would have been that which came from the farm. Hogs, chickens, eggs, and vegetables were raised or grown on the farm.

Where classes took place.

After lessons another walk would occur then in the evening students would write letters home, read, or study. There were 10 boarders at a time in the school. In reading some of the letters I noted the students were homesick and often fearful of Mrs. Burwell.

Mrs. Burwell

Mrs. Burwell began the school to supplement the family income. Her husband came to the area as the minister for the local Presbyterian Church. When they arrived there were 2 children, however this number increased to 12 with 7 surviving to adulthood. While Mrs. Burwell came from a prominent Virginia family wealth did not always come with position.

School desk along with “dormitory” rooms.

Typical Slave Dress

The operation of the school and household came at a cost. Slaves were hired or rented to maintain the household. Enter Elizabeth, “Lizzy,” Hobbs, who was born into slavery, and in 1835, at age 17, came to Hillsborough as a wedding gift to the Burwells .

This strong minded young woman came with many talents, those being the ability to read, write, and sew. However, here she suffered at the hands of the Burwells. The abusive beating promulgated by Mrs. Burwell in an effort to break her spirit and conducted by the Rev. Burwell were so horrific that the community came to Lizzy’s defense to ensure the beatings ceased.

Rev. Burwell later resigned his ministry accepting a headmaster position in Charlotte at a school which was later to become Queens College. In 1857 they left the area.

Some of the rooms of the Burwell home.

However, Lizzy’s story had only begun. Her ownership then went to a Burwell daughter who moved to St. Louis. Lizzy’s dressmaker skills supported the family during this time.

The St. Louis customers of Lizzy loaned her $1200 for purchase of her freedom. Lizzy moved to Washington D.C. and set up a dressmaking shop. There she began a friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln and was her confidante often visiting the private quarters of she and the President.

Mary Todd Lincoln once called Lizzie, “my best living friend.”

Reproduction of dress Lizzy made for Mary Todd Lincoln which now stands in the Smithsonian Museum.

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