History of Spencer Academy

Rev. Alexander Reid
Rev. Alexander Reid

Rev. Alexander Reid, principal of Spencer Academy, was a native of Scotland, and came to this country in his boyhood. He graduated from the college at Princeton, N. J., in 1845, and the theological seminary there, three years later. He was ordained by the Presbytery of New York in 1849 and accepting a commission to serve as a missionary to the Indians of the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory, was immediately appointed superintendent of Spencer Academy, ten miles north of Fort Towson.

He was accompanied by Rev. Alexander J. Graham, a native of Newark, New Jersey, who served as a teacher in the academy. The latter was a roommate of Reid’s at Princeton seminary, and his sister became Reid’s wife. At the end of his first year of service he returned to Lebanon Springs, New York, for the recovery of his health, and died there July 23, 1850. Rev. John Edwards immediately became his successor as a teacher.

Alexander Reid while pursuing his studies learned the tailor’s trade at West Point and this proved a favorable introduction to his work among the Choctaws. They were surprised and greatly pleased on seeing that he had already learned the art of sitting on the ground “tailor fashion” according to their own custom.

The academy under Reid enjoyed a prosperous career of twelve years. In 1861, when the excitement of war absorbed the attention of everybody, the school work was abandoned. Reid, however, continued to serve as a gospel missionary among the Indians until 1869, when he took his family to Princeton, New Jersey, to provide for the education of his children.

While ministering to the spiritual needs of the Indians his sympathies and interest were awakened by the destitute and helpless condition of their former slaves. In 1878 he resumed work as a missionary to the Choctaws making his headquarters at or near Atoka and in 1882 he was appointed by the Foreign Mission Board, superintendent of mission work among the Freedmen in Indian Territory. In this capacity he aided in establishing neighborhood schools wherever teachers could be found. In order that a number of them might be fitted for teaching, he obtained permission of their parents to take a number of bright looking and promising young people to boarding schools, maintained by our Freedmen’s Board in Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina. He thus became instrumental in preparing the way, and advised the development of the native Oak Hill School into an industrial and normal boarding school.

In 1884, owing to failing health, he went to the home of his son, Rev. John G. Reid (born at Spencer Academy in 1854), at Greeley, Colorado, and died at 72 at Cambridgeport, near Boston, July 30, 1890.

“He was a friend to truth, of soul sincere, of manners unaffected and of mind enlarged, he wished the good of all mankind.”

Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva

Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva were two of the colored workers that were employed at Spencer Academy, before the war. They lived together in a little cabin near it. In the summer evenings they would often sit at the door of the cabin and sing their favorite plantation songs, learned in Mississippi in their early youth.

Swing low, sweet Chariot
Swing low, sweet Chariot

In 1871, when the Jubilee singers first visited Newark, New Jersey, Rev. Alexander Reid happened to be there and heard them. The work of the Jubilee singers was new in the North and attracted considerable and very favorable attention. But when Prof. White, who had charge of them, announced several concerts to be given in different Churches of the city he added,

“We will have to repeat the Jubilee songs as we have no other.”

When Mr. Reid was asked how he liked them he remarked,

“Very well, but I have heard better ones.”

When he had committed to writing a half dozen of the plantation songs he had heard “Wallace and Minerva” sing with so much delight at old Spencer Academy, he met Mr. White and his company in Brooklyn, New York, and spent an entire day rehearsing them. These new songs included,

“Steal away to Jesus.”
“The Angels are Coming,”
“I’m a Rolling,” and “Swing low, sweet Chariot.”

“Steal Away to Jesus” became very popular and was sung before Queen Victoria.

The Hutchinson family later used several of them in their concerts, rendering “I’m a Rolling,” with a trumpet accompaniment to the words:

“The trumpet sounds in my soul,
I haint got long to stay here.”

These songs have now been sung around the world.

When one thinks of the two old slaves singing happily together at the door of their humble cabin, amid the dreary solitudes of Indian Territory, and the widely extended results that followed, he cannot help perceiving in these incidents a practical illustration of the way in which our Heavenly Father uses “things that are weak,” for the accomplishment of his gracious purposes. They also serve to show how little we know of the future use God will make of the lowly service any of us may now be rendering.

These two slaves giving expression to their devotional feelings in simple native songs, unconsciously exerted a happy influence that was felt even in distant lands; an influence that served to attract attention and financial support to an important institution, established for the education of the Freedmen.

New Spencer Academy

In the fall of 1881 the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions re-established Spencer Academy in a new location where the post office was called, Nelson, ten miles southwest of Antlers and twenty miles west of old Spencer, now called Spencerville.

Rev. Oliver P. Stark, the first superintendent of this institution, died there at the age of 61, March 2, 1884. He was a native of Goshen, New York, and a graduate of the college and Theological Seminary at Princeton, N. J. In 1851, he was ordained by the Presbytery of Indian which, as early as 1840, had been organized to include the missions of the American Board.

As early as 1849, while he was yet a licentiate, he was commissioned as a missionary to the Choctaws, and, locating at Goodland, remained in charge of the work in that section until 1866, a period of seventeen years. During the next thirteen years he served as principal of the Lamar Female Seminary at Paris, Texas. His next and last work was the development of the mission school for the Choctaws at Nelson, which had formed a part of his early and long pastorate.

Rev. Harvey R. Schermerhorn, became the immediate successor of Mr. Stark as superintendent of the new Spencer Academy and continued to serve in that capacity until 1890, when the mission work among the Indians was transferred from the Foreign to the care of the Home Mission Board. The school was then discontinued and he became pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Macalester. After a long and very useful career he is now living in retirement at Hartshorne.

These incidents, relating to the work of the Presbyterian Church among the Indians, especially the Choctaws, have been narrated, because the men who had charge of these two educational institutions at Wheelock and Spencer Academies, were very helpful in effecting the organization of Presbyterian Churches, the establishment of Oak Hill Academy and a number of neighborhood schools among the Freedmen in the south part of the Choctaw Nation.


Flickinger, Robert Elliott. Choctaw Freedmen and Oak Hill Industrial Academy, Valliant, Oklahoma. Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen. Pittsburgh. 1914

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