The Cherokee Nation has long emphasized education as a tool for survival. During the 1800s, the literacy level of the Cherokee Nation was higher than Texas or Arkansas. Literacy was spurred on by the use of Sequoyah’s syllabary, which aided Cherokee speakers in immediate literacy, enabling citizens to read the Cherokee Advocate newspaper and to keep abreast of the Nation’s issues and events.
In 1841, the Cherokee Nation opened the first free compulsory co-educational public school in the United States. The first public school in Tahlequah opened in the spring of 1846 opposite the southeast corner of the public square. At the end of the 19th Century, there were 124 schools with 28 designated for full blood students, 15 for descendants of freed Cherokee slaves, and the rest were open to all students. A Female and Male Seminary for higher education was also supported by the Cherokee Nation. The Female Seminary was the first school for higher education for women west of the Mississippi River. Studies included Latin, botany, chemistry, physics, and music. After Oklahoma statehood, the state Department of Education granted 62 hours of college credit to the Seminary’s graduates.
The syllabary letters painted on the blackboard of the Adams Corner One-Room Schoolhouse were painted by Cecil Dick, Cherokee artist. The building was constructed from materials from Tahlequah’s Stapler Home.
In small villages, the walk to school would be shorter than it would be for rural children, who might need to walk a couple of miles to school. Most schools lumped together in one room as many as eight grade levels. Students wanting a higher education had to enter boarding school, or stay with relatives in a larger community. The teacher in a one-room schoolhouse would be an unmarried woman, who would divide her teaching time among the different grade levels. For instance, some students would silently read or complete math problems while the teacher would work with another particular group of students in a corner of the same room. Students would study ciphering (math), penmanship, reading, and recitation (repeating memorized poems or essays before an audience). They would also study history, literature, spelling and simple science.
Students would help the teacher by bringing in firewood, washing the chalkboard, or cleaning the felt erasers, banging them together outside the building causing chalk dust to fall off in a white cloud. Students who were unruly could be paddled by the teacher with a paddle board, placed in a corner with their back to the room, topped with a dunce hat (a pointy paper hat), or made to place their noses inside a chalk circle drawn on the chalkboard and standing there until the teacher excused them. A thoroughly uncooperative student would be expelled and sent home.
At recess, games and toys could be enjoyed. Toys would be wooden spinning tops, ball & cup, jacks, or jump rope. Games might be tag, fox and geese, or drop the handkerchief. Another popular game was red rover in which two teams of an equal number of students faced each other with joined hands, a student who would be dared to charge through the opposing team’s chain, and if failing, would be added to the capturing team, or if breaking through, would bring a member back. The winning team was the one with the most members when recess ended.
Fun fundraising activities would support the school. Cake walks (players pay to enter in hopes of winning a donated cake), pie suppers, and box lunch auctions (whereby unmarried young women would prepare a picnic lunch for two and compete to make the fanciest box to be auctioned to raise money) were popular. The buyer of the box lunch got to eat lunch with the maker of the lunch, so a girl with charm was often able to raise a good sum for the auction coffers.