By Frank Leone
Martha Bailey Briggs (1838-1889) was an African American educator who served D.C. as principal of the Miner Normal School (a Normal School is a teachers college) and principal of the Howard University Normal Department (now the education school). Briggs worked to prepare African American men and women to teach in D.C. as well as throughout the south. After Briggs’ untimely death, a committee headed by Frederick Douglass recommended that a school building be named after her in Foggy Bottom. Briggs Elementary opened at 22nd and E Streets NW in 1989, but that building was taken over by the U.S. War Department in 1938. Briggs’ name was then added to the Montgomery Elementary School at 27th and K Streets. That school was demolished as part of the Potomac Freeway construction in the early 1960s. D.C. should name (or rename) a school in honor of Ms. Briggs.
Briggs was the only child born to abolitionist parents in New Bedford, Massachusetts on March 31, 1838. At age 12, she entered New Bedford High School and became one of the first African American woman graduates. She was trained as a teacher at Bridgewater Normal School and then taught in private and public schools in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland.
In 1859, Myrtila Miner invited Briggs to teach at her teacher’s school for African American girls in Washington, but Briggs declined, reportedly because her father was concerned about her safety. After the Civil War, in 1869, Briggs moved to D.C. and became a teacher and principal at the Anthony Bowen Elementary School. In 1873, she became one of the first African American female leaders at Howard University, teaching mathematics and teacher preparation programs. In 1879, she became the first African American female principal of the Miner Normal School. In 1883, she returned to Howard to serve as principal of its Normal Department. She served there until her death (from a tumor) on March 28, 1889.
Briggs’ extensive experience as both teacher and administrator contributed greatly to the development of teacher training programs in Normal schools, predecessors of today’s college education departments. She was eulogized as one of the outstanding educators of her time. A service was held at Howard’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel and a plaque installed in her honor, quoting the Bible passage that “Her works do follow her.”
After Briggs’ death, in May 1989, a committee of citizens representing the Bethel Literary Society, led by Frederick Douglass, successfully petitioned the District Commissioners to name a D.C. school building that was being constructed after her. The elementary school’s first principal was one of her Normal graduates, Ms. M.E. Gibbs. In 1938, the U.S. War Department took over the building and it has since been demolished.
Briggs’ name was then added to Henry P. Montgomery Elementary School (940 27th St., NW). Montgomery had served as a school principal (1876-1882) and then as Supervising Principal of African American D.C. School Divisions (1882-1899). (Not be confused with Winfield Scott Montgomery Elementary School at 421 P St. NW, named for another distinguished D.C. educator and Henry’s brother.) The Briggs-Montgomery buildings were built in 1903 and 1941. According to the Washington Star of June 18, 1959, “The school was one of the best of the Negro division of schools. . . . It had one of the best auditoriums of any elementary school.” In the late 1950s, the Foggy Bottom school age population declined as urban renewal converted much of the neighborhood to apartments and desegregation meant fewer schools. The new Potomac Freeway isolated the school and it was demolished. Its space is now occupied by a Whitehurst Freeway off-ramp.
SOURCES: Lawson Andrew Scruggs, Women of Distinction, Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character, Miss. Martha B. Briggs, Chapter 92, Raleigh: L.A. Scruggs, 1893; New Bedford Historical Society, Martha Bailey Briggs, https://nbhistoricalsociety.org/portfolio-item/martha-bailey-briggs/; John McKelway, “Grant School Is ‘Saved' Again: Briggs-Montgomery May Close,” Evening Star, June 18, 1959; “District Government: Proposing a Name,” Evening Star, May 27, 1889.