Melville Fort (1868-1939)

Posted on September 11, 2015

Melville Fort, 1896
Melville Fort, 1896

Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Melville Fort graduated with honors from Mississippi Industrial Institute and College, considered the first public women’s college in the United States. She then acquired additional training in New York. Hired as a professor and head of the art department at the State Normal and Industrial School, Fort was paid a significantly lower salary than other teachers at the college. Even though she was qualified for the position, her salary was $450 per year, as compared with Dixie Lee Bryant, who taught Natural Science with a salary of $900. The industrial art department offered classes such as architectural and mechanical drawing, but it also recommended courses in decorative design, art history, china painting, woodcarving, and clay and plaster modeling. Art classes met twice a week, and students were required to take a year of training to earn their diploma.

During a time when few teachers could afford their own home and many found themselves living in the dormitories with students, Fort lived with Gertrude Mendenhall, the professor of Mathematics. The teachers lived in “Green Cottage,” a small house directly off campus, entertaining both faculty and students with parties, games, and teas. She was also friends with the wives of the male faculty, especially with Effie Joyner, wife of James Y. Joyner, who taught English at the college from 1893 to 1902.

In 1919, the changing focus of the school and resulting curriculum shifts, resulted in the resignation of Fort and the two other vocational art teachers. Little is known of the details of Miss Fort’s life after leaving the college. She moved to Raleigh where she held part-time positions with the State Architect and in the State Revenue Department. She moved in with the Joyner family and lived in their home until Mrs. Joyner died in 1930. Ultimately, Fort was buried in the Joyner family plot in Raleigh after her death in 1939.

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