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A look back at ‘normal’ schools and colleges

In taking a look back at colleges that used to exist here in Hartselle and elsewhere, one often comes across “normal” in the name of the college and finds it puzzling.

Here are a few examples from Hartselle and elsewhere in north Alabama that make reference to “normal” schools and colleges:

  • Aug. 31, 1891—The Hartselle Normal School was organized on this date.
  • A newspaper giving the Hartselle Normal a good evaluation after only a year in operation: Nov. 24, 1892—The Hartselle Normal is an example of enterprise in the school business. The Hartselle Normal School was growing fast and was “coming to the front” as far as Alabama’s normal institutions of higher learning were concerned.
  • May 23, 1910—The summer normal being conducted here in Hartselle by Professors J. L. and Sam Gipson opened this morning with something like 30 students. This is a preparatory and review course especially for those who are teachers or who contemplate teaching.
  • A few miles south of Hartselle, another normal school received a similarly high rating: Nov. 23, 1897—The Falkville Normal School is rapidly gaining in patronage and influence.
  • April 24, 1906—A large crowd from here attended the closing exercises of the Falkville Normal College yesterday and last night.
  • And still further south of Hartselle: May 30, 1904—The Cullman County Normal Institute, with Professor E. L. Hayes of a Falkville as one of its main leaders, opened here this morning with a very good attendance from this and surrounding counties. Professor Hayes serves during the regular academic year as president of the Falkville College. 

Some of the normal institutions later morphed into successful state institutions, as is true in the case of the present University of North Alabama.

UNA, where many Hartselle high school graduates go to get their college degrees, began as a “normal school” when Florence leaders who had established the unsuccessful Wesleyan University turned over this institution’s building and grounds to the Alabama State Board of Education. A short time later, in 1873, the State Normal College at Florence began operating. 

  • Aug. 14, 1928—Students of Florence State Normal School who will graduate during commencement exercises to be held Wednesday include Clara Orr Puryear of Eva and Lester Ausbin Ryan of Hartselle.

Basically, a “normal school” was an educational institution established to train high school graduates to be teachers by instilling in them basic instructional norms such as those related to pedagogy and curriculum. 

It would be expected that those successfully completing courses in a normal school would be employed as teachers in elementary as opposed to high schools. 

Prior to the advent of the normal, anyone – male or female – who was at least a teenager could take a state test and, if passed, begin to teach.

The first public normal school in the U.S. was established in Concord, Vt., in 1823, its purpose being to train teachers – the same as the normals in Hartselle, Falkville and Cullman previously mentioned. 

William Edward Yasser, a state legislator from Athens, was an early advocate of the normal school in Alabama in the years following the Civil War.

The University of West Alabama was originally a normal school. 

Most of the normal’s students were females, since females dominated the ranks of teachers in the public schools. 

James Albert Wright was president of the Alabama Normal College for Girls, now UWA in Livingston. He had begun teaching as an assistant to Professor Henry Tutwiler, famous as the father of the multi-talented Julia Tutwiler. 

Originally the normal schools were locally funded. In time, the state began to subsidize them. 

During the Great Depression, state funding was minimal. In 1933 Morgan County received only $7,555 out of a state appropriation of $996,658.


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