Houston didn't have free public schools until March of 1876 when deliberately segregated schools were opened, administered by the city. Prior to that time, the relatively small number of children seeking a formal education paid a monthly tuition of a few dollars to attend a private school, often located in the teacher's home. Primary courses such as reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic and geography generally cost parents less than senior courses like philosophy, rhetoric and trigonometry. The city directory of 1866 began its article on education in Houston by opining that "The city of Houston is not as well supplied with permanent educational facilities as its wants demand", but the author later remarked that "the schools of Mr. Duvernoy, Mr. Barron, Mr. St. Leger, Rev. Mr. Brown, Mrs. Abbey, Mrs. Green, Mrs. Stiles and several others are all receiving a well-merited share of public patronage."
The largest school of the day however was the Houston Academy, not to be confused with an earlier college preparatory school of the same name that Henry Gillette operated in the Telegraph Building for about two years in the mid 1840s. That first venture seemed to have closed in 1846 when Gillette moved to Independence.
Two years later a group of ten trustees was formed to fill the void with a coeducational, non-denominational Houston Academy. It was finally chartered on August 19, 1856. The main force behind the charter was a bequest of $5,000 in the will of former mayor, grocer and railroad entrepreneur, James H Stevens. He promised the money whenever the citizens of Houston could match it with another $10,000. They rose to the challenge by raising $20,000, and construction finally began for the two-story brick school on September 17, 1857.
Stevens had been elected mayor in 1855, running on a "Railroad" ticket along with alderman candidates that included William Marsh Rice and Thomas William House. As mayor, he gained permission from the State to run a tap line from the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railway so that Houston could steal some of the highly lucrative cotton shipping business away from the rival city of Harrisburg, a few miles downstream. He died of consumption in July of 1856, but when the tap line opened that October, the locomotive was named the James H. Stevens.
Rice and House were also among the first incorporators of the Academy, as were other leading merchants and politicians such as Cornelius Ennis, the man who succeeded Stevens as mayor, and Peter W Gray, a legislator and attorney who had founded the Houston Lyceum, precursor to the Houston Public Library, in 1848. Prominent men such as these realized that Houston was lagging behind in the area of education. Cities back east had enjoyed free public schools for decades, and even New Orleans had established such a system in 1841. Houston might not have free schools yet, but an inexpensive alternative was a priority.
Dr. Ashbel Smith was the first principal of the new Academy. By the time he took the job in 1858, Smith had one of the best resumes in Texas. He had served as Surgeon General of the Army of the Republic of Texas shortly after his arrival in the new nation in 1837. He negotiated a treaty between Texas and the Comanches, served as Texas' Secretary of State, spent two years as Charge D'Affaires representing the Republic in England and France, had one term representing Harris County in the state legislature, helped found the Democratic Party in Texas, negotiated another treaty in which Mexico recognized the independence of Texas, served in the United States Army in Mexico under Zachary Taylor and spent several years as Sam Houston's roommate.
Following his brief stint with the Academy, Ashbel Smith would serve in the Second Texas Infantry during the Civil War, sustaining an arm injury at Shiloh, and eventually rising to unit commander. He then resumed his work in education, serving on public school boards in Harris and Galveston Counties, and as one of three commissioners who established the school which is now Prairie View A&M. To many Longhorns, his biggest legacy is as the "Father of the University of Texas", championing the cause of establishing "a first class state university" and then becoming the first president of its Board of Regents in 1881.
Smith was followed at Houston Academy by a Prof. Pettit and then Rev J. R. Hutchison, D.D., who was overseeing 150 students of both sexes by the fall of 1860, the year Sam Houston gave a speech in the building.
School stayed in session during the early years of the Civil War, but in the summer of 1864, the Confederate military authorities took over the school and converted it into a soldiers' hospital. The convalescent soldiers are said to have made use of the school's 600 volume library.
When the War ended, the Houston Academy reopened with 203 students and six teachers, and with what the city directory described as "flattering prospects of usefulness." The principal at that time is listed in some publications as W. J. Hammock, though that same city directory shows him as Hancock, both in the section on education and in the individual listings. Also listed is W. J. Hancock, Jr., a "tutor at the Academy".
When a handful of Houston citizens voted 65 to 9 to take the state legislature up on its offer of local control of schools, the Academy building became part of the public school system. Its library was donated to the Houston Lyceum. It was remodeled in 1878 and renamed the Clopper Institute in honor of Prof. E. N. Clopper.
Houston City Directory for 1866; W. A . Leonard, Compiler; Gray, Strickland
& Co, 1866
Houston: A History; David G McComb; University of Texas Press; 1969
Handbook of Texas Online: Ashbel Smith; Elizabeth Silverthorne; 2006; sv
Handbook of Texas Online: Houston Academy; Diana J. Kleiner; 2006; sv
Handbook of Texas Online: Thomas William House; Julia Beazley; 2006; sv
Handbook of Texas Online: Cornelius Ennis; Priscilla Myers Benham; 2006; sv
Handbook of Texas Online: James H Stevens; Priscilla Myers Benham; 2006; sv
Handbook of Texas Online: Peter W Gray; Thomas J. Cutrer; 2006; sv
Houston: The Unknown City; Marguerite Johnston; Texas A&M University Press; 1991
New Orleans Public Schools Website; History of New Orleans Public Schools; 2006