The name of William N. Edwards is familiar to many residents of Troy and Miami County. He served as the first superintendent of the Troy City School system and is remembered as a kind but very stern-looking man. Edwards School, which once stood along West Main Street, was named in his honor and a monument in tribute to him is located near the rear entrance of the main branch of the Troy-Miami County Public Library. During his life, he was considered one of the top educators in the State of Ohio. Far off in Africa, his wife Mary Kelly Edwards is also recognized in a similar way. Yet only a few people know the story of the amazing life of Mary Kelly Edwards.
Mary was born in West Milton, Ohio on July 8, 1829. Her parents, Samuel and Mahala Kelly, were Quakers. Along with Mary, the family had three boys and a girl.
Samuel Kelly and his brother came to Ohio from Massachusetts in the early 1800s and settled in West Milton. Mary’s father built a woolen mill there. As a young girl she often helped both her father at his mill and her mother in their home.
In her book AHEAD OF THEIR TIME NINETEENTH CENTURY MIAMI COUNTY WOMEN (2001), Joanne Duke Gamblee wrote, “Young Mary learned her first lessons in organization, instruction, and production from her father. She would spend time in the cotton factory, fascinated with the working of the machines. No older than ten, she would help out in a pinch when one of the workers was absent, and she was also able to instruct and train a new employee. Before she was a teenager, she was working regularly in the factory, taking time out to go to school in the winter months.”
Near the end of her teenage years, Mary taught at a country school. It was during that time, that she realized she needed a more formal education to be a successful teacher. She dreamed of attending Cooper Academy for young ladies in Dayton and saved her money to go there. (Note: Coper Academy is sometimes referred to in historical records as Cooper Seminary.) The $24.00 she had saved, however, was not enough to cover the cost to attend the school. She asked her father for financial help, but because he felt she was needed at home and did not want her to leave, he only gave her $5.00. Mary’s grandfather, however, loaned her $15.00 and in 1847 she enrolled at the school.
After the first term, she again struggled to find enough money to continue her education. She took a teaching position at $13.00 a month and was able to pay for a second term. The principal at Cooper Academy (a man named Mr. Barney) recognized Mary as an exceptionally intelligent young woman. He wanted her to continue her education and loaned her enough money to do so. With Mr. Barney’s funds, she graduated in the class of 1851. Eventually, her father paid off half of the debt for her schooling.
For two years after her graduation, she worked in country schools. In 1853, she was invited to teach in the new public school system in Troy and in a recently constructed school named the Union School on West Main Street. (The school had opened in September 1852.) She was asked to teach there by the school system’s first superintendent William N. Edwards.
The new school building was far different from the places Mary had previously taught. It was three stories high, had 11 classrooms, and a stove in every classroom. Several teachers were on staff at the school—possibly eight—when Mary started teaching there.
As previously mentioned, Superintendent Edwards was a rather fierce-looking but loving man. He had come to Ohio from Massachusetts several years earlier. He was a graduate of Williams College and had studied two years at Andover Seminary. In his book TROY THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, historian Thomas Wheeler described Edwards, “He had been lame since childhood, and was large and ungainly, with large piercing eyes, a rough exterior, and a kind heart. His appearance was so forbidding that he never had to speak a cross word to keep order in the classroom, his pupils were united in praising him—even behind his back.” Some of his former students said that as boys they used to call him “Old Billy.”
The Buckeye newspaper also described Edwards in its January 20, 1896 edition (the recollections of C.N. Burns): “Mr. Edwards was probably five feet ten inches tall (but he looked to us boys to be at least seven feet), angular of form, very lame, and with eyes that looked as if he might have borrowed a prize owl at the Zoological Garden…he cared little for personal appearance, but everything for personal performance….”
The 41 year old William Edwards and the 24 year old Mary soon became attracted to each other. They had many things in common: both had family ties to the state of Massachusetts, both were highly intelligent and had a love of education and neither was considered to be good looking. Joanne Duke Gamblee said in her book, “Physically, Mary was a plain-looking woman with a stocky build. In her pictures, there is a no-nonsense appearance….”
The two were married 1856. Mary continued teaching after their marriage. She had started her career in Troy teaching younger children and advanced to the high school as a Latin teacher. Though the Edwards’ never had children of their own, there were children in their home. Mary’s brother Leonidas, a nephew, and cousins lived in the Edwards home so they too could attend the Union School. The Edwards were considered prominent residents of Troy.
Tragedy struck in the summer of 1867. William Edwards died suddenly in August that year. The Miami Union newspaper of Saturday, August 3, 1867 says, “A feeling of sadness and gloom pervades our town, as we go to press, on account of the apprehended death of our worthy fellow-citizen Professor W.N. Edwards, who, though taken sick but two days ago is, at the hour we write (Friday afternoon) pronounced, by attending physicians, beyond the reach of medical aid.”
His obituary in the Miami Union newspaper of August 10, 1897 states, “The death of Mr. E. is a loss to the public generally, as he was one of the most devoted friends of education and practical Teachers in the State; but especially it is a loss—amounting, indeed, to a calamity—to Troy and it vicinity which have, for some fourteen years, enjoyed the benefits of his ability, his experience, and his untiring devotion to that noble cause—the instruction of youth—which he has made the single purpose of his life.”
Almost immediately, Mary decided to leave Troy. Being a woman of faith, she applied to work with the Women’s Mission Board of the Congregational Church. Through that board, she was sent to South Africa. There she founded a seminary school to teach Zulu girls. The school is named the Inanda Seminary.
Joanne Duke Gamblee wrote in her book, “Could Mary Edwards have had a call? Could she have responded to a vague uneasy feeling that she carried for a long time, and undefined sense within herself of searching for something? She was now alone, with no husband or children, and if she carried an inner longing, she was free to pursue where her strong faith in God might be leading her to search for her own fulfillment.”
Mary began her work in South Africa with Daniel and Lucy Lindley, who were the first missionaries from the American Board of the Congregational Church. She found herself in an unusual position as a worker in Africa. Most female missionaries began their careers at a much younger age—Mary was nearly 40—and they were accompanied by a husband.
Her “new” life began on August 19, 1868 when she sailed from Boston Harbor on a small sailing ship named the G.T. Kemp. Forty boxes of her possessions were placed on the ship with her. She had to bring from America everything she would need in Africa both personal items and things for the classroom. On board too were ten double desk with chairs, a gift from her friends in Troy. These desks were still in use in Africa in 1969 (and may still be at the school today).
The voyage took 11 weeks—longer than originally planned. Much of the time she was seasick. It was a terrible voyage for her. Finally the she arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She waited a week for her boxes to be unloaded from the ship. Feeling that she could not wait longer for her possessions to be unloaded, she took the monthly steamer “the Natal” to Durban. There she was met by two men who were friends of the American Zulu Mission and taken to a private home. Soon after, Daniel Lindley and his daughter came to Durban to take her on the final leg of her journey. The final leg of the journey to her new home was first made by train to the end of the rail line, then by boat to across the Umngeni River and then in a wagon that was pulled by oxen. She arrived at her destination in mid-November of 1868. For a time, she lived with the Lindley family. Eventually, her things came on the next monthly steamer. She got her possessions and settled in her new home on New Year’s Day 1869.
Her immediate task was to organize a school. She was given a building, but no school room furnishings. That was the beginning of problems related to the school in the coming years. She could not speak the local language, her first students were not disciplined, an economic recession hit, there were food shortages, fatal diseases sometimes came to the area and she herself was sometimes sick. A newspaper article written in 1952 (newspaper unknown) says, “There were exciting and often dangerous days in Mrs. Edwards’ Africa career. Once she was attacked by an insane coolie and so roughly handled that a nervous reaction affected her throat and for five weeks she was unable to swallow solid food. Girls being sold as wives sometimes ran away and came to the school for refuge. With their bodies smeared with grease and clay wrapped only in blankets they shivered while enraged fathers, seeing financial loss, came to take them away. Many times Mrs. Edwards calmly faced groups of Zulu warriors brandishing spears and knobkerries in her face.” Mrs. Edwards became known as “Mother” or “Mah” Edwards. Her life was sustained and she carried on through her deep faith in God.
Mary Edwards stayed at the school until the end of her life on September 24, 1927, about 60 years after the death of her husband arrival in South Africa. She died at the age of 98. Many times she felt like giving up and returning to America, but she only returned once for a visit in 1874. She ended her career as principal of the school in 1892, but lived on at the school until her life ended. In her later years, she helped with the school agricultural projects.
Late in life, another hardship came her way. She became blind when she was in her 80s. Nevertheless, she could type on the typewriter by feeling with her fingers and continued to communicate with friends and relatives by the written word.
It is interesting that in Troy there is a monument to William Edwards and the Edwards School that once stood on West Main Street was named in his honor. At the Inanda Seminary in South Africa, there is a building named Edwards Hall that honors Mrs. Mary Edwards. It was dedicated to Mrs. Edwards on March 22, 1888. On May 29, 2001, a bust monument honoring her was placed at the school. It was unveiled on May 29, 2001 by South African President Dr. Nelson Mandela.
By the late 1990s, the school’s buildings had deteriorated. Mandela declared the school a “Heritage Site” and helped the school find sponsors to refurbish the buildings.
Note: Several online sources have stories and photographs of Inanda Seminary. Some websites have photographs of Mary Kelly Edwards, Edwards Hall and the monument dedicated her monument.