Information on Wheelock Academy


Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Editor's Note: The Wheelock Academy as it appeared in 1893. Photo courtesy: National Trust for Historic Preservation/Choctaw Nation

American girls in the mid-nineteenth century had limited options when it came to getting an education. But in Oklahoma Territory, young Choctaw women had an advantage. They had Wheelock Academy, founded in 1842 and hailed as a model for Indian education. Once the flagship chool of the Choctaw Nation, Wheelock Academy has fallen victim to the ravages of weather and time.

"At a time when Native Americans were torn from their homes and heritage, Wheelock Academy gave the Choctaw the opportunity to acquire essential skills for succeeding in the contemporary United States," said National Trust President Richard Moe. "It set the precedent for all tribal schools to follow and remains not only an integral piece of Indian history, but America's as well. We must work to save Wheelock Academy's legacy as an historic educational center."

History: Wheelock Academy was founded in 1833, shortly after the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears. Alfred and Harriet Wright, New England missionaries, made their way west with Choctaws who had been forced out of Mississippi. The Wrights started a Presbyterian mission school for Native American girls, worshiping under a large oak tree before Wheelock Academy was built. Wright and the Choctaws envisioned a school that would do more than the typical mission school. They wanted to go beyond rudimentary vocational skills and literacy and succeeded in developing a sophisticated educational program. As a result, the academy served as the paradigm for the school system established by the Five Tribes.

The Choctaw National School System took over in 1842, establishing a companion academy for boys nearby. An 1869 fire destroyed the campus, save for the 1845 Rock Church (now the oldest church building in Oklahoma still in use), but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1882. The Bureau of Indian Affairs owned Wheelock Academy from 1932 to 1955, when it closed after the school district combined it with another school. The General Services Administration owned the school from 1955 until ownership reverted to the Choctaw in the late 1960s. The Choctaw Nation hopes to reuse the 45-acre Wheelock Academy as the home of Oklahoma's first tribally controlled community college.

Threat: Weather and a lack of funding have threatened the academy's historic buildings. Decades of water damage and poor maintenance have caused heavy damage to roofs, walls and foundations.

Solution: With proper funding, the Wheelock Academy buildings can get new roofs and structural stabilization. Once preserved, they will play a part in educating generations to come. America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places has identified more than 100 threatened one-of-a-kind historic treasures since 1988. While a listing does not ensure the protection of a site or guarantee funding, the designation has been a powerful tool for raising awareness and rallying resources to save threatened sites from every region of the country. Whether these sites are urban districts or rural landscapes, Native American landmarks or 20th-century sports arenas, entire communities or single buildings, the list spotlights historic places across America that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.

TAKE ACTION

The Choctaw Nation plans to establish Oklahoma's first tribally controlled community college in the existing historic buildings. The main obstacle is the overwhelming state of disrepair of the academy's structures. Although the project has already received grants, considerably more funding is needed. Donations can be sent to the Wheelock Academy in care of Preservation Oklahoma, Inc., PO Box 25043, Oklahoma City, OK 73125-0043.

One of the building's on the Wheelock Academy campus as it appears today. Several buildings at the Native American school are deteriorating. Photo courtesy: National Trust for Historic Preservation/Choctaw Nation