June 27th, 2011

The Father of Texas Education: Mirabeau B. Lamar or Ezekiel W. Cullen?

With teachers being laid off and the Texas educational system in upheaval (more so than usual,) it seems like an appropriate time to visit the roots of education in Texas, particularly a quiet argument among informed individuals concerning who deserves the moniker “The Father of Texas Education” – Mirabeau B. Lamar or Ezekiel W. Cullen. Inside the loop, there are institutions memorializing both men, namely Mirabeau B. Lamar High School on Westheimer and the Ezekiel W. Cullen Building at the University of Houston, both fine examples of Art-Deco architecture, and E. W. Cullen Middle School on Scott Street.

Despite various attempts at establishing a system of public education in Texas from the colonial period (yes, Houston was then located within the northern Mexican province of Coahuila y Tejas) through the days of the Republic after the Texians (the nationalistic term preferred by colonists, and later citizens of the Republic of Texas, to identify themselves) gained independence from Mexico, the education bill that was passed during the Third Congress of the Republic, which was held in Houston, then the capital of the Republic, at the corner of Texas Avenue and Main Street, is considered the cardinal piece of legislation that would eventually lead to a viable system.

The first legislation on education was introduced by Thomas Jefferson Rusk, on April 23, 1838, and referred to a committee (surprise!). One July 28, 1838, Anson Jones (later president of the Republic) explained that one objection he had to bringing his family to Texas was the lack of schools, and that he tried to procure an appropriation of public lands for the purposes of education, and made a report to Congress, which was referred to the Judiciary Committee, who defeated the proposal. Ezekiel Cullen was appointed to the first Congressional Committee on Education on November 6, 1838, along with Baker, Butler, Jones, and Wright, Baker being replaced by John A. Wharton.

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On December 20, 1838, President Lamar, only ten days into his term, delivered his landmark address to Congress, which included the now popular quote: “The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy, and while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest attribute of man. It is the only dictator that freemen acknowledge, and the only security that freemen desire.” He went on to urge Congress to appropriate lands for the purpose of funding a public education system.

Inspired by Lamar’s grandiloquent address (Lamar was also known as “The Poet President”, and penned a volume of poetry that was published in New York), Cullen introduced a bill for establishing a public education system on January 4, 1839. In his report preceding the bill, Cullen authored the words “Intelligence is the only true aristocracy in a government like ours and the improved and educated mind has and will ever triumph over the ignorant uneducated mind” which are printed on the Ezekiel Cullen Building at the UH campus. The quote continues “…and our separation from Mexico, and consequent revolution, is to be attributed, in a great degree, to the difference between the Texians and the Mexicans, in their mental culture and improvement, and consequent powers and superiority.” The Texas Declaration of Independence also noted discontent that the Mexican government had failed to establish a public education system. Cullen’s bill, with some changes, became the law, and was approved by President Lamar on January 26, 1839.

Four decades later, in 1879, William Youel Allen, who was chaplain of the house at the time the education bill was in the works, reminisced that John Wharton, who was on the Educational Committee with Cullen, took ill a few days after Congress convened. Allen claimed that during a visit to Wharton on his death bed, he complied with the dying Congressman’s request to pen a report for the Committee on Education. Allen claimed that Wharton’s replacement took the report, added an introduction, and presented it as his own. E. W. Winkler, state librarian from 1906-1909, reported that although the original manuscript was not located, the body of the report was in Allen’s style. Allen also stated “If the Wharton brothers had lived, I think the cause of education would not have slumbered so long.”

Despite this early step towards a fully-funded public education system, the Cullen Act only secured public lands to fund public education, but did not establish a system. Governor Elisha M. Pease, on January 31, 1854, signed the bill setting up the Texas public school system, which was funded by 20% of the money Texas received for forfeiting land during the Compromise of 1850. The constitution of 1876, the sixth constitution since independence, and the current constitution under which the state operates, stated that all lands previously appropriated to support public schools would become part of a perpetual school fund. The same constitution also reestablished the separation of funding for black and white schools. Scores of other laws passed later impacted the present public education system, but there is no fair answer as to who is the “Father of Texas Education.”

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Was it Rusk, the first to introduce legislation on education? Was it Anson Jones who tried to secure public lands to fund public education nearly four months before Lamar’s poetic urging to Congress asking for the same thing, only in fancier prose? After all, it is largely due to this address that Lamar was later celebrated as the Father of Texas Education. Or was it Cullen, who drafted the bill including the suggestion of Jones and Lamar to secure public lands to fund education, who should take the title? Or was it Wharton, who according to Allen recited the relevant information in the bill from his deathbed. Or was it E. M. Pease, who signed the bill establishing an actual system. And who drafted the bill that Pease signed?

Despite the fact that history remembers Lamar as the champion of education – as does the present through countless schools bearing his name – all of these men contributed in some way, and the moniker doesn’t seem to “belong” definitively to any one person; however, one conclusion can be made without a doubt, the principal law regarding public education in Texas was passed in Houston, inside the loop.

History-piercing words and research by Clint Drake (bibliography upon request)

— The Loop Scoop

Comments

Pam Bridger — Monday, June 27, 2011 11:53 pm

Very interesting and informative article that has provoked a related question for the author. For many years I’ve heard a story that suggested the University of Houston was established by the Cullen Family because one of their sons was not admitted to Rice University, which was already in existence at that time. Can you confirm this story or do you know of facts that would discredit it? I’ve been curious about this since I first heard it. Thank you.

Kaylee asshole✨ — Wednesday, January 29, 2014 11:24 am

DAMN ALL I WANTED TO KNOW WHAT ONE OF HIS QUOTES WERE!

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