Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The afterlife of Margaret Milburn Amidon

It began with her funeral, held at the Milburn home on Virginia Avenue. Rev. Jabez Fox spoke a sermon. Mr. Fox, representing the Swedenborgian affiliation of Hollis Amidon and of old Mrs. Milburn, was only the short subject. There was a second divine engaged for the main feature, namely Rev. George Whitfield Samson, at that time the president of the Columbian College. He was also a pastor, had been Mrs. Amidon’s pastor, at the E Street Baptist Church, and something like a spiritual advisor to her. He delivered a eulogy full of heavy piety, extolling her virtues of honor, duty, faith, and public usefulness. With the additional presence of the choir from E Street Baptist singing hymns to open and close the ceremonies, the house must have been crowded.

The following February saw two even larger memorials. At the first Margaret’s friend and champion Samuel Yorke AtLee gave an oration on her life and death to a crowd at the Seventh Street Presbyterian Church. Rev. Jabez Fox also appeared for this occasion. Various other trustees and dignitaries of the schools rose to speak about Mrs. Amidon, dwelling in particular on the elevation of the public schools which she accomplished by her own example and by means of her protégées, fifty-four of whom were said to have gone on to be teachers. Some few days later another gathering, this time of teachers specifically, listened to even more speeches commending Mrs. Amidon and building up the schools.

It’s interesting to note that although Margaret is shown in these speeches in relation to her school, her community, and her city, there isn’t much mention of her living family. Of course I can only go by what was afterwards told in the newspapers. Her parents are referred to and her stepmother, but Margaret Agnes is never called a beloved sister to her own sisters and brother, or said to be a dear aunt to her own nieces and nephew.

Mr. AtLee’s oration, the one from the principal memorial service in February, was in April issued as a pamphlet. At least two newspapers printed excerpts of the material, relating details of her childhood, teaching career, and marriage. (It’s from these excerpts, primarily, that I’ve learned so many details, or clarified them, about the Milburn family. There may be even more pertinent material included in the full printed work. I’ve not been able to see this yet, but there’s a copy in the Library of Congress according to their catalog. With the promise of a photograph as frontispiece!)

Over the summer of 1870 the school trustees considered a new plan for a prize to be given annually in Margaret Amidon’s honor. This was the “Amidon Medal,” a gold medallion designed by Goldsborough Bruff and struck by the Mint. The plan was underwritten by a published group of subscribers that included many of Margaret’s friends. (At least one family member contributed, her brother-in-law John Abell.) The trustees approved. The prize would be given to a girl from the Fourth District who was outstanding in the year for “amiability and scholarship” as judged by her teachers and fellows. There were a number of other awards and scholarships available to Washington students. This one was aimed to dignify specifically girls who might go on to become teachers (and several of the girls did), as well as to perpetuate Margaret Amidon’s name.

1871 began with a concert given by school pupils to raise money for some sort of Amidon monument. During the evening the first of the Amidon Medals was given out (to a Miss Susie Howison—really the 1870 medal). The concert was said to be a success, but I don’t know of any monument built from the funds raised. At the close of the school year the following June, the regular award for 1871 was made at the period of the yearly class examinations. Medals were given in this fashion year by year, continuing at least into the 1880s; after that time I’ve found no more mention of them.

short contemporary newspaper notice of the display of the portrait of Mrs. Amidon
1883 newspaper notice
It’s possible that whatever money was got from the 1871 concert was used instead to commission the portrait of Margaret Amidon that was mentioned in the newspaper in 1883. By that time there was a new school building that bore her name, and the painting, after being on public display, was placed in the school.

The Amidon School for the Fourth District stood originally at the corner of 6th and F Streets in southwest Washington. Used for seventy years or so, that original school is now gone, along with the entire neighborhood, obliterated in the middle of the last century as part of a vast renewal program carried out on Southwest DC. That former intersection 6th and F Streets would now lie in the traffic of a cross-town freeway. At some point around 1960 the Amidon school was reestablished on I Street. Amidon-Bowen is, I believe, the current official name, now that the school has combined with the former Bowen school, but the building today bears on its facade only the name Margaret M. Amidon. As recently as 2003 somebody dredged up details of Margaret Amidon’s life for a “ceremonial resolution” on behalf of the fifth grade class.

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