Inside the Archives: Mamie Nolan made lasting impact on community

Published 6:01 pm Friday, May 17, 2019

During the 1920s, Mamie Nolan, the Chambers County Jeanes teacher, made a lasting impact on her community. She knew firsthand that education meant opportunity. Her father, Elijah Allen, taught public school for decades. Although he was born into slavery, he learned to read and write at an early age. Records indicate that as early as 1880 Allen was serving as one of Alabama’s nearly 1,600 African American teachers during the postbellum years. Later in life, Allen became an entrepreneur, opening a laundry business and funeral home. Teaching, however, remained the family’s calling.

Robin Brown
Archives Assistant at Chambers-Bradshaw Library

Nolan’s sister, Susie E. Allen, served as principal for Phenix City’s African American elementary school for close to 30 years. Shortly after her death the school was named in her honor. In 1908, Mamie began her teaching career in Sugar Town, an African American community in Phenix City. Public education in Alabama was generally underfunded, with African American schools receiving the least. Northern philanthropy helped bridge the gap.

In addition to Julius Rosenwald’s school building fund, John F. Slater, a textile manufacturer from Connecticut, supported county training schools for African Americans. In 1907, an eccentric and elderly Quaker named Anna T. Jeanes set aside $1 million to improve education in rural African American schools across the south. Between 1908 and 1968 around 300 Jeanes teachers had served in each of Alabama’s 67 counties.

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Tasked with broad goals of promoting the welfare of their community, Jeanes teachers were recognized as members of the county school system. Nolan developed a productive working relationship with Chambers County superintendent G.M. Barnett, to the point that she became an unofficial assistant superintendent. Nolan personally visited each of the African American schools in Chambers County. She trained teachers, helped raise money to build schools, taught students, teachers, and parents how to sew, garden and can vegetables.

Many Jeanes teachers emphasized the industrial arts, but they often assisted their community in personal ways as well. When young girls found themselves without a home, Nolan adopted them. She raised several troubled girls, instilling in them the same values she learned as a child. As a woman of faith, Nolan was active in local churches. She helped found and build Nichols Chapel A.M.E. Church in LaFayette by sewing beautiful party aprons and by selling baked goods.

Enlisting her Sunday School class to help sell aprons, she taught them how small actions could have a profound impact. Nolan passed away in 1974, but her collection at Cobb Memorial Archives preserves her legacy of fulfilling the Jeanes teacher motto of “doing the next needed thing.”

If you have any personal memories of Nolan, contact Cobb Archives at (334) 768-2050 or email To learn more about Nolan and other local women whose lives helped shape history, please register for the Lunch N Learn on “Local Women in History” taking place at the Bradshaw Library on May 22.