Lucy Kidd-Key, Tough Victorian Lady

Born into an old southern family in Kentucky in 1839 and given a genteel education in the classics and fine arts, the barely five-foot-tall Lucy Ann Thornton was a bundle of contradictions—a lady ahead of her time who believed women should be educated, also touted the need for women to hold home and family above all else.  After the financial burdens brought by the Civil War and her husband Dr. Henry Byrd Kidd’s long illness and death, Lucy was left with three children and mounting debts.  She immediately set about recouping the family’s financial stability by selling land she inherited from her husband and by bringing suit for $1,500 against a widow with three children who defaulted on a note due for some land.  Lucy won the suit.  Her husband had held part ownership in a pharmacy and to collect unpaid balances on customer accounts Lucy stationed a Negro servant at the front door of the pharmacy to halt anyone who owed money.  In this fashion, Lucy soon shored up the family finances.  She then took a job as presiding teacher of Whitworth College in Brookhaven, Mississippi, which with its outstanding music department, grew to be the largest college for women in the south.  During the ten years at Whitworth, she developed many of the principals for educating young women that she incorporated in later years.

Her experience led Methodist Bishop Charles B. Galloway in 1888 to recommend Lucy Kidd to bring life back to the North Texas Female College, which had been closed for a year. Despite her demand that the board of trustees come to her Sherman hotel for the interview, they were quite impressed with the educational credentials and recommendations from Mississippi’s governor and lieutenant governor.  They probably also thought that Mrs. Lucy Kidd, dressed in black widow’s weeds, would bring some of her personal wealth to the college since it was customary at that time for presidents of private schools to invest their personal funds in the institutions and to pay for construction of campus buildings.  In fact, Lucy Kidd had less than $10,000 and she carried it sewn into her underwear to keep anyone from knowing her financial status.

Lucy Kidd-Key

Lucy Kidd-Key

Lucy received a ten-year contract in April 1888 with the understanding that she would get the buildings back in shape and hire teachers to begin classes the following September.  She immediately contacted her old friend Maggie Hill with whom she had taught for years at Whitworth and offered her the position of presiding teacher at a salary of seventy-five dollars a month, payable only when the school started making money.  Lucy’s eighteen-year-old son Edwin withdrew from the University of Mississippi to become the secretary and financial agent for the college.  Her daughter Sarah, who had studied music in New Orleans, New York, and Paris, returned to teach voice at the school.  Lucy also hired four of the best teachers from Whitworth to join the faculty.

She moved her family, servants, and furnishings for the school in July and immediately began traveling to church sessions and camp meeting all over Texas and Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) to attract girls and money for the fall semester.  In later years Lucy shared stories of the hot, dirty, and exhausting horseback and stagecoach trips she took that summer and of the scary nights sleeping in remote cabins and listening to howling wolves.  She also told of one fund-raiser where she was preceded by a preacher who told the congregation that music and musical instruments were tools of the Devil.  Then, it was her turn to encourage attendance and financial help for her college that emphasized training in the arts, especially music.

By the time the North Texas Female College opened that September, Lucy Kidd had rounded up 100 students, including the daughter of the governor of Mississippi.  More challenges lay ahead.  The college consisted of only two buildings and when it rained, a creek running through the middle of the four-acre campus sent mud flowing into the front door of the main building.  By the end of the first year she used $850 of her own money to purchase four lots and had a three-story frame dormitory constructed, which was named the Annie Nugent Hall for the daughter of the gentleman who gave the first major gift of $10,000.  Over the next three decades the campus grew by another dozen buildings named for generous donors.  By 1892 the school boasted telephones, electricity, incandescent lights, zinc bathtubs, running water, and it was the first school in Texas to provide a nurse for its students. The library grew and the school became the only Southern women’s college with science laboratories and a $700 refracting telescope.

In 1892 Lucy’s marriage to Joseph Staunton Key, a beloved Methodist bishop, posed a name problem for Lucy who enjoyed an amazing career as Lucy Kidd.  She solved the dilemma in a daring way for the times; she hyphenated her last name to Kidd-Key. She was also ahead of her time in her educational philosophy.  Even as she insisted that “her girls” always be womanly, she believed women had brains and should think for themselves.  While she did not oppose women’s suffrage, she did not approve of the behavior of some of the women who were organizing for the vote.  She wrote that women should be able to take financial care of themselves and their children.  Yet, she insisted on surrounding herself with her notion of “womanly” things—flowers and lace in her home and wearing long, flowing dresses that extended into trains.

il_fullxfull.430594455_k2viTownspeople called the students’ excursions into town, “the string” because the girls, wearing their navy blue wool uniforms marched two by two with a chaperone at the head and another at the end of the line.  Austin College boys gathered at various sites along the route to watch the girls.

The students enjoyed tennis and basketball teams and calisthenics.  Lucy built a skating rink in the gym and in keeping with her ever-present eye for fund-raising, she opened the rink to Sherman residents.  When the kitchen staff went on strike in 1908 Lucy hired the older girls to run the kitchen and donate their wages to the new building fund. When the strike ended she treated the girls to an elegant dinner at a downtown hotel.

Lucy’s interest in music led to her search for financial backing that enabled her to hire the finest faculty from all over the world.  The Conservatory of Music auditorium attracted the top orchestras and singers of the day, including Victor Herbert, Campanini, the United States Marine Band, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  She insisted that students have instruments in their rooms, which led in 1910 to 120 pianos on campus.

Enrollment reached its peak in 1912 with more than five hundred students; however times were changing.  The were fewer girls who could afford or wanted to attend what President Roosevelt described as “the only finishing school west of the Mississippi.” Less-expensive state supported schools began operating and in 1915 Southern Methodist University in Dallas opened with financial support from the church that had previously gone to North Texas.  Lucy’s health began to decline as financial shortfalls forced her to pay faculty salaries herself.  The class of 1916 was the last to graduate as Lucy made plans for her retirement and to convert North Texas to an accredited two-year junior college.  On September 13, 1916, one week after the new school opened, Lucy Kidd-Key died.

Lucy’s memory was honored in 1919 when the school was named Kidd-Key College and Conservatory.  Her son and daughter continued running the school for several years before the depression brought new financial worries and at the end of the 1934-1935 term, Kidd-Key closed.

Today a Texas Historical marker is all that remains at the old school site but the legacy of Lucy Kidd-Key continued well into the twentieth century as her graduates made names for themselves as educators, writers, musicians, singers, and sculptors.

North Texas Female College

North Texas Female College


2 thoughts on “Lucy Kidd-Key, Tough Victorian Lady

  1. My grandmother attended Kidd-Key Conservatory sometime around 1912 – 1915. Indeed, she described Mrs. Kidd-Key as stern. She also spoke fondly of going to town to the opera, riding in a phaeton (a sort of open carriage). She was once almost expelled, however, for wearing a blouse which barely revealed part of her midriff. My how times have changed . . .


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