I’ve been writing on deadline recently to complete revisions on an article on M. A. Cassidy with graduate researcher Lindsey DeVries. I was going to call it “Massillon Alexander Cassidy: Progressive Schoolman,” but lately have been leaning more toward “A Southern Progressive: M. A. Cassidy and the Lexington Schools, 1885-1928.” It will appear in the next volume of the American Educational History journal.
I did my student teaching in 1972 at Cassidy School, under the supervision of my predecessor, some 23 years later, Principal Dorothy Friend. I always thought it was a great school. The kids were treated with respect. When I moved my family to Lexington in 1985, I knew where I wanted my own children to attend school. For almost two decades as the principal of the school that bears his name, I was in possession of a quantity of historical data about Cassidy. I have always wanted to learn more about the numerous progressive initiatives of the hard-working school superintendent. He is arguably the best example of how progressivism manifested itself in Kentucky’s schools. As is frequently the case when reviewing school records retained by the school, I read the good news – as opposed to all of the news.
Previously, I had been principal of two schools whose names came from the communities where they were located; Ryland Heights in Kenton County, and Meadowthorpe in Lexington. Both had the usual local historical memorabilia; neither assembled into any kind of historical account, as I recall. When the building was built, some names of teachers and administrators, and a bunch of photos (perhaps a yearbook), news clippings…was what one found.
But when I became the principal of Cassidy Elementary, I inherited not only the school, but the man. A very large portrait of the man still adorns the first floor hallway as a reminder to all of the wonderful deeds of our namesake. Well, not really. We weren’t exactly sure of just what those deeds were. But surely he must have been wonderful to have merited such a remembrance. More impressive is his tombstone in the Lexington Cemetery.
So, who was M. A. Cassidy? When I studied the record, what would I find?
I will confess to a bias in favor of effective school administration and Cassidy was very competent. He led people. I respect that because it’s important work. Folks who do it well are valuable.
Our review of school board records, personal letters, newspaper and scholarly accounts paints a picture of a popular superintendent who transformed the modest schools of Lexington from an undistinguished collection of dilapidated common schools, into to a more efficient system of graded schools, with improved buildings and better trained teachers, while preaching the gospel of literacy and expanding equality of educational opportunity, in a remarkably even-handed fashion for his time, to an increasing number of children. Under his watch, the schools in Lexington grew to enjoy a national reputation for quality. High praise, indeed.
Cassidy was one of a new breed of New South superintendents who maintained the long-standing interest in moral and civic training emblematic of 19th century schoolmen, but now saw the school as a vehicle to solve social problems and advance national progress.
Upon reviewing the impressive list of Cassidy’s progressive, child-centered initiatives, one might guess that he was dispatched by John Dewey to bring Lexington into the 20th century. But the data reveals a much more nuanced set of conditions which portray Cassidy as a distinctively southern-style reformer who held conservative and progressive ideals in equal measure.
Problematic is the proper casting of the ex-Tennessean’s racial politics, which, while clearly racist, were consistent with the vast majority of Lexingtonians early in the 20th century. Cassidy moved to the north, and found a “southern” state where his racial attitudes were a good fit with the white Democratic majority: at once, progressive and paternalistic; concerned but condescending.
Conversely, the data present a clear record of Cassidy’s staunch support for black education including cooperation with black leaders, the establishment and improvement of schools for blacks, and the creation of a black teacher association and teacher-training institutes. Cassidy distinguished himself, remarkably, by insisting that schools for black children in Lexington would be up to the same standards as schools for whites.
In Golden Deeds, his nationally recognized book and character development program, Cassidy shows no reluctance in praising Abraham Lincoln and other heroes who were white, black, men and women. He believed that women should be educated as much as they want, but that their best purpose was in the home. The data illustrate a southern accomodationist’s approach to white supremacy.
Illustrative of the breadth of miscegenation fears at the time was the U.S. Supreme Court’s acceptance of white supremacy as a matter of “science” in Berea College v Commonwealth (1908). Reasoning that interracial marriage would “destroy the purity of blood and the identity of each [race],” and that prejudice was simply nature’s guard against that unnatural amalgamation, prohibitions against miscegenation went unquestioned by the court. The majority went so far as to argue that it was a credit to America’s civilized society that “the stronger race” did not simply “annihilate the weaker race” and in that way, the law that made it illegal for black and white kids to go to school together, preserved the peace. (See upcoming article in the Journal of Negro Education with Roger Cleveland and June Hyndman).
Cassidy belonged to that class of southern accommodationist progressives who made education their career, utilized the expertise of science and business to efficiently reshape civic life, and who saw themselves as the teachers and guardians of subordinate African Americans in whom they would cultivate some measure of collaboration and consent.