Photo courtesy FSU

Lost piece of history delivered home to Fairmont State University

On Sunday, April 18, a piece of history missing for more than 100 years was welcomed back home to Fairmont State University, the original portrait of first female normal school principal in the country, Ms. Elizabeth Dickey Fleming.

Within recent years, Dr. Raymond Alvarez, Fairmont State University professor of healthcare management, embarked on a mission to uncover the history and life of Margaret Elizabeth Dickey Fleming. For more than 100 years the story of Ms. Dickey and her achievements had been overlooked, until Alvarez received the ‘Normal on the Avenue’ grant in 2015 to examine origins of Fairmont State Normal School, the forerunner institution of Fairmont State University.

“While reviewing documents including original course catalogues, I found Dickey listed as principal for a period of years but couldn’t find her in the ‘Hall of Presidents’ in Hardway Hall or on the Fairmont State history page,” Alvarez said. “I discovered that Ms. Dickey had in fact served as the acting principal, or acting president in modern terms, of the Fairmont Normal School in 1878 and was named Principal in 1879, where she would serve in this role until 1882.”

Alvarez discovered documentation from Dickey’s alma mater, Miller Normal School, in its Normal Journal from 1906 noting Dickey’s significantly historic role at Fairmont Normal as the first female principal of a normal state school in the United States. Further research revealed the Fairmont State Normal School Alumni Association presented an original oil painting of Ms. Dickey in recognition of her service to the institution in 1905.

However, the painting was not relocated when the normal school campus was moved from the Fairmont Avenue location to the current Fairmont State University campus on Locust Avenue.

In 2019, Fairmont State associate professor of art, Joel Dugan, was commissioned to paint a portrait replicating the original oil painting to be revealed during spring Commencement. Upon the ceremonial reveal, Ms. Dickey would finally be brought “home” to the Hall of Presidents on campus where her photograph had been missing for more than a centuries time.

Intrigued by the story of the pioneering Fairmont State president, Alvarez continued his research on Ms. Dickey and in 2020 was able to connect with one of her living relatives in search of the missing original oil portrait.

“Last fall, an email showed up one day,” Alvarez said. “It was from the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Dickey Fleming. Her brother had found my research and she sent me a note, beginning a long series of correspondence and information sharing.”

The great granddaughter of Ms. Dickey, historian Janet Hutchison, confirmed the portrait had been in the family’s possession in Philadelphia for more than 100 years, and agreed the portrait belonged at its rightful home, Fairmont State University.

The original portrait was presented by Hutchison on Sunday, where it will now be displayed in the Ruth Anne Musick Library. In addition to the portrait, an exhibit commemorating the life and legacy of Ms. Dickey is available for viewing in the library, with story boards designed by Alvarez. Dr. Beth Newcome, curator of the Fairmont State Masquers Historic Costume Collection, also added period clothing to exhibit.

“It is an immense honor and privilege to honor an incredible innovator, Ms. Elizabeth Dickey Fleming,” said Mirta M. Martin, Fairmont State University president. “Ms. Dickey was a revolutionary leader who paved the way not only for the current Fairmont State University, but also for higher education within our state and country. We are grateful for the opportunity to continue telling her story and to celebrate her legacy and impact for years to come.”

Among other items shared by Dickey’s great granddaughter included Ms. Dickey’s hand-written journal from 1917 recounting the early days of Fairmont Normal. Highlights of the journal include the key role played by Ms. Dickey within the Fairmont Normal organization and drive toward quality, completing several gaps in documentation of the early history of the school.

“We are now working on making her journal and documentation of the early history of the institution accessible to the public through the Fairmont State Library online resources,” Alvarez added.

Her journal revealed when Dickey arrived to begin her tenure at Fairmont Normal, Fairmont was a village of 600 people, with a half-built school and muddy, unestablished streets. Nonetheless, there was a vision for the normal school and teacher training for the fledgling public schools within the state.

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