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The Normal School Is Born

Untitled Document
Local residents gather for the laying of the corner stone at Science Hall.
Local residents celebrate the laying of the corner stone at Science Hall (Maury Hall) in April 1908.

James Madison University was born out of a political compromise.

The events leading to the founding of the Normal School that would become JMU began in the early part of the 20th Century. At that time, interest in public education grew rapidly in Virginia and led to the call for the creation of a new normal school for the education of women teachers.

(“Normal” schools were so-named because they were supposed to set the standard – or “norm” – for excellence.)

The 1902 session of the Virginia General Assembly appointed a special committee of two state senators and three delegates to study the establishment of a normal school for women that would also offer industrial training.

There was widespread competition among Virginia cities and towns that wanted to be the site for the new school. The legislative committee visited 28 locations throughout the state – from Wytheville to Newport News, from Alexandria to Martinsville.

Citizens of Harrisonburg, along with the other cities and towns, lobbied long and hard to acquire the new school. A mass meeting of local citizens at the Rockingham County Courthouse on January 4, 1908, drew a large and enthusiastic crowd in support of the Harrisonburg site for the normal.

When the 1908 session of the General Assembly began, the state was ready to appropriate funds for the new normal.

The debate among the legislators quickly boiled down to three finalists: Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg and Radford.

State Senator George B. Keezell and Delegate P.B.F. Good of Rockingham County led the efforts for Harrisonburg in the State Senate and House of Delegates.

Radford was eliminated from the debate but the two houses of the legislature split on their choices: the State Senate backed Harrisonburg and the House of Delegates supported Fredericksburg.

A compromise was cut allowing the creation of two new normal schools. Harrisonburg would receive start-up funding in the 1908-09 fiscal year and Fredericksburg the following year.

The bill passed both houses in March 10, 1908, with Governor Claude A. Swanson signing the bill on March 14 that created both the State and Normal School for Women at Harrisonburg and the State and Normal School for Women at Fredericksburg. Both institutions are now preparing to celebrate their 100th anniversaries.

That week, Editor Adolph H. Snyder of The Daily News – a long-time vocal supporter of the normal – wrote and printed a 20-line poem in his newspaper that began:

The Normal 's come to Harrisonburg,
And Oh! My lawsy daisy –
All the folks around this town
Are just a-runnin' crazy.
Snatch it ‘way from Fredericksburg,
Knocked Manassas silly;
Good and Keezell are the men –
They got it willy-nilly.

When Senator Keezell and Delegate Good returned to Harrisonburg, they were greeted by a throng of local residents at an enthusiastic reception. The Harrisonburg Daily News said Harrisonburg had not given such a warm welcome to anyone since President William McKinley visited the city in 1899.

The welcome rally included a parade through the city and a public meeting at a packed Assembly Hall in the courthouse. At the meeting, Harrisonburg Mayor O.B. Roller called it “the proudest moment in the history of Harrisonburg.”

Freshman ladies of 1910 line up with their suitcases.
Freshman arriving in 1910.

The Harrisonburg school began classes on September 30, 1909, with an enrollment of 150 and 15 faculty members in two buildings on a 50-acre campus.

Today's James Madison University has 17,000 students, some 1,000 faculty and administrators and a 631-acre campus with more than 100 buildings.

-- Fred Hilton