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A Larger Life than I Expected: Seeking Ella Flagg Young.

Over the last decade, I have been researching and writing a biography of Ella Flagg Young. Young readily captures attention because of her extraordinary public achievements during the Progressive Era such as superintending Chicago's schools from 1909-1915, becoming one of the first women to earn the rank of full professor at a U.S. university, and winning election to the National Educational Association presidency, again, the first woman to do so. (1) Her previous biographers have examined many of these public achievements. However, her private experiences have remained mysterious because she left no archives. Complicating matters further, her friends guarded her privacy even after her death and notoriously diverted attempts to inquire about her private life. (2) These types of wrinkles and circumstances are particularly challenging for biographers and the biographical enterprise, in narrating a life

I first noticed this gap in Youngs story as I worked on a book about the history of women superintendents, an account in which she played a centrally important role. Then as I wrote histories of LGBTQ educators, I understood that Young mattered greatly to this story, too. (3) However, lingering archival chasms profoundly complicated my analyses of the personal dimensions of her life and left me frustrated. After all, tantalizing pieces dangled in public view, hinting at significant, though obscured, facets of her life. For example, her will and probate records revealed that Young left the bulk of her sizeable estate to someone named "Laura Brayton," a woman listed in census records as Young's "companion" and who lived with her for decades. (4) They owned an automobile that Brayton avidly drove as Youngs "chauffette," as one report described her, and the two long enjoyed evening excursions around Chicago for pleasure. (5) I considered pieces like these. And as a woman who identifies as a lesbian, had to leave high school teaching because of it, and has invested significant effort in finding queer stories in the history of U.S. schools, I slowly understood that I would join the ranks of Young's biographers. I am now composing an alternative depiction of Young's life, one in which I endeavor to make some sense of the heretofore largely hidden aspects of her life alongside her very public contributions that have been explored in previous biographies.

First, I wanted to know about Young's family of birth. I started with a description of her family from her first biography, which was written during her life and with her close cooperation. Author John McManis had been one of her former University of Chicago students who then become her colleague. (6) Young granted McManis extensive interviews. She also gave him access to some of her personal photographs and documents, all of which disappeared after her death. We may never know precisely what happened to these materials, but despite my extensive searches, they have not surfaced in any archival collection to date. This disappearance is consistent with Young's longstanding desire to control discussion of her personal life. My interpretation is that she directed McManis to return or destroy materials made available to him. He clearly wrote his account only with Young's consent and certainly would have complied with her wishes.

As I studied McManis' brief discussion of Youngs family of birth, however, I realized that he omitted important information. Furthermore, he included some details that contradicted other evidence I had collected. McManis excluded the cause of death for Young's mother. I eventually located an obscure sentence in a Buffalo, NY, newspaper to learn that it was tuberculosis, in 1862 considered a source of shame. (7) McManis noted that Young's brother died a few years later in a freak train accident. I searched historical newspapers for months using every conceivable permutation of his name before finding "a man named Flogg" in a Nashville newspaper and realizing I had finally located her brother. This account confirmed McManis' version, but in a more gruesome fashion. (8) McManis did not name Young's older sister, a profoundly important omission. He explained that Young's sister died in early adulthood. However, after examining census and other documents, I learned that her sister lived for almost 50 years as an inmate in Chicago's prison-like House of the Good Shepherd. (9) McManis indicated that Young's father died slightly before her sister. However, I have only located a single account of a broken man by her fathers name in Illinois and published around the time her father most likely died, but I cannot conclusively verify that he was Young's father. (10) McManis described Youngs husband as having been sickly and dying shortly after their marriage. I found records indicating that, like her mother, he died of tuberculosis. (11) In short, Young, through McManis' proxy, shielded the public from details about her family, shading or falsifying parts of their stories. These hidden aspects of Young's life hint at difficult, path-changing challenges that she faced during her formative years, ones that might otherwise have allowed future generations glimpses of her full complexity. At the same time, though, as a person who routinely took risks by being the first woman in each of a series of school leadership positions, she already was closely scrutinized because of her gender. Could she have succeeded in the same astonishing ways had the public known more about her family? I am choosing to explore the silences she left behind; McManis chose to perpetuate them.

Of course, I wanted to know about Young's relationship with Laura Brayton, too. I found traces of Brayton in city directories, which showed that the two lived near each other for about a decade. Then they lived together continuously from 1895 until Young's death in 1918. (12) I located numerous reports of their extensive travels together. (13) I also searched in vain for floorplans of their residences and travel berths, hoping to see if they shared bedrooms or slept separately. To this date, I have found no correspondence between them. However, I have found copies of letters written to Young in which friends also wished Brayton well as they might for a family member.

I have hunted doggedly for photos of Brayton. However, yearbooks for schools in which she taught or studied contained photos of others, but not her. There are no captioned photos of her in searchable historical newspapers or archives. I have only found three photos that might depict her. In two of these, a woman matching Brayton's physical description stands beside Young, who remains seated at her desk. (14) Separately, in a photo of dignitaries on a train bound for Tuskegee, part of Brayton's face may be visible next to Young's in a group photo. (15) Brayton accompanied Young on this trip, but she is not captioned and little of her (possible) face shows.

In these and other ways, I have concluded that Young and Brayton were together constantly, but deflected attention from their relationship in part by explaining Brayton's role as Young's private secretary. Whatever their relationship was, it was public, but at the same time hidden. Perhaps most telling, or confusing, is that after close friends accompanied Young's body back to Chicago after her death from the Spanish flu, they buried her to one side of her pre-arranged cemetery plot, presumably so Brayton, herself battling the flu, could be buried on the other. When Brayton eventually recovered and returned to Chicago, she arranged to move Youngs body to the center of the plot and instead reserved a nearby plot for herself. (16) I interpret this to mean that Young and Brayton's closest friends understood them to be companions, but that Brayton may have sought yet again to deflect attention from their relationship, especially for posterity.

As I have struggled to piece together parts of Young's private life, examining small details with great intensity, I have discovered that other aspects of her story have lingered just outside my grasp, but within the realm of her large, public accomplishments and travails. Though I had long understood Young to be an extraordinary educator and leader by any standard, I have only recently realized that she also catalyzed one of the epic, defining battles in the history of U.S. schools. Young strongly pushed to make teaching intellectually demanding, highly creative, respectfully compensated, and largely collaboratively-determined work done within networks of professional community. She aggressively fought against centralized power in school systems, stultifying mechanization and standardization, and systematic oppression of women and other classes of persons. She insisted on respecting the individuality and freedom of every school worker and student, aspiring to make schools expansive rather than constricting, dehumanizing institutions. (17) She essentially led a movement to rethink schools, with the newly revitalized Chicago Schools demonstrating to admirers around the country the viability of such a paradigm change.

As John McManis wrote his biography of Young during the late years of her superintendency, a virulent backlash among some Chicago residents emerged, with Young as its clear target. Some angrily sought to squelch women's growing public power, especially after Illinois granted women suffrage in mid-1913. Others despised her staunch insistence on integrated schools. A few rabidly opposed the well-received sex education program she introduced in the Chicago Schools. And corrupt, but powerful school board members wanted to depose her from the superintendency after she resisted their efforts to profit from textbook contracts. When Young resigned for good at the end of 1915, her powerful detractors immediately fired her supporters and dismantled the initiatives introduced under her watch. McManis' biography of Young came out shortly after she left the superintendency, but he did not describe this backlash. Subsequent accounts similarly minimized or omitted this significant part of her story.

In the years following Young's death, many of her ideas and programs have disappeared from public discussion. Some have been attributed to Dewey retroactively; however, through painstaking analysis I have concluded instead that Dewey got some of his most important ideas about schools--about democracy and education--from Young, which he freely and repeatedly admitted. (18) Also, an early twentieth-century increase in women superintendents around the country, in part inspired by Young, crested soon after her death, followed by a steep decline in their numbers. In effect, the broad promise of Young's leadership was reversed not only in Chicago, but around the country. Beyond McManis' biography, which missed or mischaracterized important aspects of her private life and public contributions, Young's--and Brayton's--emphatic secrecy have made Youngs story difficult to decipher at both the smallest and largest levels.

I am confounded by the manifold difficulty of this project as it continues to unfold, but that difficulty also compels me to persist. Young's story affirms for me that one mindful person--working in sensitive collaboration with others--can powerfully shift how we think about an institution as encompassing as schools. Through this biographical project, I believe I am finally grappling with one of the most revolutionary moments in U.S. education history, its aftershocks still felt into the present.


(1) I have described some of these in "Individuality, Freedom, and Community: Ella Flagg Young's Quest for Teacher Empowerment," History of Education Quarterly 58, 2 (May 2018): 175-98.

(2) For example, sec John McManis, Ella Flagg Young and a Half-Century of the Chicago Schools (Chicago: McClurg, 1916); Rosemary Donatelli, "The Contributions of Ella Flagg Young to the Educational Enterprise" (doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1971); and more recently, Connie Goddard, "Ella Flagg Young's Intellectual Legacy: Theory and Practice in Chicago's Schools, 1862-1917" (doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2005). Joan K. Smith managed to recover many important parts of Young's story even though relevant sources were quite difficult to find when she wrote her significant treatment, Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Research Foundation Press, 1979). Smith's work has been particularly inspiring to me through the years.

(3) These books are Destined to Rule the School: Women and the Superintendency, 1873-1995 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), which has Young's image on the cover, and Fit to Teach: Same-Sex Desire, Gender, and School Work in the Twentieth Century (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005).

(4) For this, I have studied Young and Brayton's probate records, legal reporting of institutions to which they left money, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts. For example, see Probate -- Estate of Ella F. Young, Case # 57693 and Probate -- Estate of Laura Brayton, Case # 36P94, Archives of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Chicago, IL.

(5) Reporters described Young's secretary and "chauffetle" in this article, "Asks Million for Good Roads," Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, IL), October 1, 1911, A8. Brayton was known to the public as Youngs personal secretary.

(6) Alumni Directory: The University of Chicago, 1861-1910 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1910), 4; and NEA Fiftieth Anniversary Yearbook and List of Active Members, 1906-1907 (Winona, MN: NEA, 1907). 90.

(7) "Died," The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY), September 18, 1862, 2.

(8) "Railroad Accident," The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), September 24, 1868, p, 4.

(9) 1870 Census, Chicago, Ward 18, Cook, Illinois, Roll: M593_210, image 351, 175; and 1900 Census, Chicago, Ward 23, Cook, Illinois, Roll: T623 273, 3B.

(10) The single, most verifiably accurate source of her family members' years of birth and death is the set of their headstones in the family plot, Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago.

(11) "Honorary Graduate's Record, University of Illinois, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign Archives, folder: Young, Mrs. Ella Flagg,' 10 L.L.D. (deceased).

(12) For example, see volumes of the Lakeside Annual Directory of Chicago (Chicago: The Chicago Directory Co.) from 1883-1912.

(13) Examples of their travel together include several trips to Europe. See passport applications for Ella Flagg Young (No. 91145, signed July 6, 1904) and Laura Thompson Brayton (No. 91127, signed July 7, 1904), each witnessed by their mutual friend, Leslie Lewis.

(14) Scc Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, head and shoulders portrait, sitting at a desk looking at papers, July 25, 1913, Chicago History Museum, and Mrs. Ella Flagg Young sitting at desk, several people are standing behind her, large vase of flowers is in front of her, Dec. 27, 1913, Chicago Historical Museum,

(15) Young and Brayton may be 4th and 5th from the left in Julius Rosenwald, 1912, Group 2, Series I: Individuals and Groups, Tuskegee, AL, University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center,

(16) Cemetery records for Ella Flagg Young and Laura T. Brayton, Rosehill Cemetery. Also, see Ella Flagg Young's probate records.

(17) Blount, "Individuality, Freedom, and Community." Note: I made these arguments throughout this article, but especially from pp. 195-198.

(18) I have elaborated this argument more fully in two pieces: "Ella Flagg Young and the Gender Politics of Democracy and Education," Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 16, no. 4 (2017): 409-423; and "The Mutual Intellectual Relationship of John Dewey and Ella Flagg Young in Philosophy and History of Education: Diverse Perspectives on their Value and Relationship, eds. Antoinette Errante, Jackie Blount, and Bruce Kimball, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 27-38.

(19) I detail this in my book, Destined to Rule the Schools: Women and the Superintendency, 1873-1995 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998).

Jackie M. Blount

The Ohio State University
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Author:Blount, Jackie M.
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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