Past Treasure of the Month – September 2015
of Galveston Public Education
by Van Dearing Perrine donated by Littlejohn’s great-granddaughter Peg Bobbitt.
As the sultry days of Galveston’s summer give way to fall, island schools have welcomed back students from summer vacation. It’s easy to feel conflicted as the boundless opportunity of a fresh academic year lay ahead, and the lazy days of summer fade in the rear view mirror. Teachers and administrators know this especially well. Many long hours both preparing and teaching await them, but for most their passion for education and helping students is worth the effort. This month the Rosenberg Library museum remembers one of Galveston’s educational pioneers Elbridge Gerry Littlejohn as its September Treasure of the Month.
E.G. Littlejohn was born in 1862 in Smith County just outside of Tyler, Texas. His family emphasized learning, and as an adult Littlejohn told a writer he couldn’t recall a time when he didn’t know how to read. For the first years of his life his father was off fighting in the Civil War, so his mother, grandfather and the family’s slaves raised him. The local school was held in a primitive log church with no windows (a plank could be taken out for air circulation) and crude, splintery benches for seating. Despite the poor facilities, Littlejohn had fond memories of schoolyard games and helpful peers.
Upon graduating from high school, Littlejohn attended college at East Texas University in Tyler and went on to graduate from Peabody Normal College at Nashville. In 1882 he and his roommate, James Fendley, began their teaching careers in Jacksonville, Texas. The following year the duo moved to Galveston where Littlejohn taught at the ‘old hospital school.’ Within two years he was promoted to principal at an elementary school on 15th and N, but the school burned in the Great Fire of 1885. Despite the setback, the school year resumed in the basement of Temple B’nai Israel and the Presbyterian Church. Littlejohn moved to Rosenberg Elementary and finally Alamo Elementary. His accomplished career spanned the 1900 Storm, recovery, grade raising, and many other historical events. In 1924 he became the Superintendent of Galveston’s public schools. He served in that post until his retirement in 1934 due to poor health. Littlejohn’s fifty-years of service were an impressive feat, but it was almost unheard of that his lifelong friend James Fendley did the same, including serving as Superintendent for 20 years.
Littlejohn’s impact on Galveston’s schools is hard to overstate. As early as 1885 he held classes for educators on how to improve their teaching methods, eventually bringing the courses to the University of Texas and Tulane. He helped establish the Texas Journal of Education at Galveston, which became one of the leading educational journals in the county. Littlejohn even helped start the first Mother’s Club (a precursor to the Parent-Teacher Association) in Galveston.
In 1887 Littlejohn married Helen Cullens and the couple had four children (his friend James Fendley also married in 1887 and also went on to have four children). Despite a demanding career and growing family, Littlejohn had many other commitments and interests. He served as secretary of the Galveston Lyceum, taught Sunday school, was a trustee on the Galveston orphanage board, and on the board of directors of the Galveston chapter of the American Red Cross.
Perhaps Littlejohn’s biggest passion outside of education was Texas history. He served as Secretary of the Texas Historical Society for thirty years. As such he wrote many historical figures and their descendents asking them to share their experiences with the Society for posterity. The Galveston and Texas History Center on the fourth floor of the Rosenberg Library has his papers (MS35-0018) available for researchers. They cover topics including Moses Austin, education in the Republic of Texas, the Texas Navy, Thomas Rusk, Sidney Sherman, Mirabeau Lamar, Sam Houston, and much more.