Beginnings, 1935 - 1939
Crowded onto the steps of the Armstrong Mansion, the students of Armstrong Junior College smiled for the camera and for history in 1936-37, the second year of the college's existence. The women wore their pretty dresses, and the men sat on the lower step or perched atop the great urns on either side of the heavy bronze doorway. They sported saddle oxfords and striped socks. They did not look like students of the Depression era, but they were. Some of them were able to pay the modest tuition and fees of $35.00. Others received scholarships or earned their way by playing the piano for school assemblies or by typing reports and letters for faculty members.
Whatever their personal circumstances, Armstrong students enjoyed one of the finest and most elegant buildings in Savannah. Each day, they passed through its large marble entry hall and mounted an imposing circular stairway to the second floor where they took classes in English, math, government, and French—all in the home built by Savannah businessman George Ferguson Armstrong and donated in 1935 by his widow and daughter to the city of Savannah to house a two-year city college.
The opening day faculty were young men and women with the versatility and commitment necessary to make the new venture succeed. They were (first row, left to right) Dorothy Miller, librarian; Nelta Beckett, secretary; Ernest A. Lowe, dean and soon-to-be president; Margaret Fortson, English teacher; Frances Ennis, home economics teacher; Margaret Spencer, music teacher and assistant to the president; (second row, left to right) Thomas Askew, political science teacher; Arthur Gignilliat, math teacher; William Boyd, biology teacher; and Reuben Holland, French and Spanish teacher and registrar. All but the librarian were native Georgians; most of them had previous teaching experience; four of them were Phi Beta Kappa.
The man responsible for the founding of Armstrong Junior College was Mayor Thomas Gamble, the small man in the white suit leading the academic procession for honors day in the spring of 1937. Behind him came the men and women of the Armstrong Commission, prominent citizens whose energy and interest he marshaled to support the academic enterprise. Gamble's enthusiasm for the college was inexhaustible. He garnered funds from the Public Works Administration to build a college auditorium. He persuaded banker Mills B. Lane to purchase an adjacent residence for the college. And his friendship with newspaper owner Herschel V. Jenkins brought the college a generous patron and lots of newsprint. A prolific writer on Savannah's history, Gamble valued the liberal arts curriculum and the economic stimulus that a college could provide to the city.
College life always included more than academics. Bonds of friendship might appear on an embroidered jacket or in memories tucked beneath a maroon and gold rat cap. This canvas jacket is embroidered with the signatures of Armstrong Junior College's faculty and students. The Rat Cap is a donation of Arabelle Epps Strode; she wore it circa 1944.
From 1937 to 1940, Armstrong had football! Since the college lacked a gymnasium, physical education classes roamed around the city: tennis in Forsyth Park, basketball at the Y.M.C.A or the Knights of Columbus Hall, swimming at the pool at the old Desoto Hotel. The student senate met on the sun porch on the south side of the mansion, while upstairs two editorial staffs produced a newspaper, The Inkwell, and a yearbook, the "Geechee. There were dances and receptions in the great front hall. A theater program directed by Stacy Keach combined the talent of students and community actors. Homecoming welcomed and celebrated the college's alumni. At each new step in their history, the founding generation delighted in the fact that everything they did was "a first."
Read on to the next years in history... Armstrong's Greatest Generation 1939-1950.