Miss Clara Conway
    ... and the Clara Conway Institute



Clara Conway was a highly motivated and dedicated Memphis teacher and political activist.   She founded the Clara Conway Institute in Memphis and was a founding member of the
Nineteenth Century Club in 1890.  She began her career as a city public school teacher and developed a strong interest in providing women with a quality education.   Conway was the first Tennessee woman to assist in the organization of teachers' institutes, and the first southern woman to attend teachers' summer school in the north.  She was also instrumental in getting a Tennessee bill passed which confirmed that women could be eligible to become school superintendents. 


Click on small photos to see an enlargement

   Clara Conway

Clara Conway was born in New Orleans August 14, 1844.  She moved to Memphis in 1864 and was educated at St. Agnes Academy, but her main education was by her own study at home. She traveled extensively in the United States and in Europe and her special gift was to prepare girls for college primarily the top two girl's schools,  Vassar and Wellesley.

Early in her career, Conway was principal of  the Memphis Alabama Street School and the Market Street School.  She was considered an outstanding teacher and was frequently featured in the newspapers.  In 1873, Conway was proposed for superintendent of public schools in Memphis.  This was part of an early political fight to have female educators recognized for their merits.  The Memphis Daily Appeal endorsed her, but she didn't get the position and of course, women teachers didn't get equal pay.



St. Agnes Academy  old Market Street School 1866 Directory 1872 Directory Endorsement

In 1877 Clara Conway  left her prominent position in the public schools to open a high-grade school for girls.   She began with 50 pupils, one assistant, and $300 of borrowed money. The aim of her school was to help women become economically independent through a solid education.  To Conway "independence" was one of highest attributes of womanhood.   But without backing, starting a new school was not easy

In 1884-85 a number of public-spirited citizens of Memphis came to her assistance. They organized a stock company, incorporated the school, and erected a building. 


Clara Conway Institute




Miss Conway proposed to call the new school the Margaret Fuller School, but instead, the trustees wanted it named the Clara Conway Institute. From the small beginning the institute became very successful.  The school's board of Trustees included some of the most influential businessmen in the city.

  The Teaching Staff

1879 Ad         1880 Ad 1883 Ad 1884 Ad 1885 Ad

In the Clara Conway Institute there was a Kindergarten - which was a new idea in Memphis.  Here, the little children learned unconsciously and acquired a solid foundation for future education and  for life.  Conway also introduced physical education into her school, as well as "free-hand drawing" along with other branches that required mind and hand coordination.  Her belief was to educate "... morally, mentally, and physically"

Her school had a fine reference library, a well-equipped gymnasium, a science lab, and a complete arts studio.  There were courses in voice, piano, theory, and public speaking.  Over the years Conway won the friendship of famous artist, musicians, authors and scientists.

Clara Conway  

Conway Institute 1885 Bldg Plans 1886 Ad School Grounds 1891      School Grounds



Clara Conway had hoped to found a school that would make women economically independent and she believed a solid education would do this.  She became one of the most prominent figures in education in the South and her school held a unique place in the region as a major preparatory school for young women. 

The school grew rapidly and by 1885 there were 270 pupils.  During this year the school was incorporated and the name Clara Conway Institute chosen.  It was also the year that a large building was erected on Poplar Avenue.  The school soon outgrew this building and a larger modern brick structure was erected.


1885 Dedication

1875 Article

1875 letter 1877 Article 1879 Aticle 1881 Commencement 1887 Ad

In 1888 there were over 300 pupils and 26 teachers - many of whom had been graduates of the school.  The course of the school consisted of eleven years work, and the last year included trigonometry, poetry and history of Horace and Herodotus, history of philosophy, history of art, English literature, political economy, and civil government.

Many national leaders in education complimented the work of the school.  It became nationally known for its progressive and innovative approach to education.  The two articles below were written 100 years apart, in "Cosmopolitan" - 1891, and in the book  "Elite Women of the Reform Impulse" - 1991.


1893 Article

Cosmopolitan 1891 Cosmo, Pg 2 Cosmo, Pg 3 Cosmo, Pg 4 Elite...1991

Elite ... 1991




The Clara Conway Institute continued until 1893. The circumstances of the school's demise are somewhat unclear but appear to have originated from a conflict between Conway and her trustees.  She was determined to carry out the college-preparatory idea over the opposition of her financial backers who wrote that there was  "too much ambition on the part of the principal"


Class of 1891

After the closure of her school, Clara Conway continued to teach for a few years on a much smaller scale, with herself as the sole teacher.  She also remained heavily involved in educational issues for women and spoke at the National Educational Associations meetings in 1884, 1886, 1887.  She was elected a member of the National Council.  Her activism was motivated by women's independence.  She argued that a woman's duty is first and foremost to herself, not to her husband.  In 1889 a bill was finally passed confirming women's eligibility as school superintendents. 

Class of 1891 ... with Conway      



In 1902, Conway
published a small 97 page book titled, "Silver-Lined Days - Leaves from a note book of old-world travel".  The book is about a Southern woman's description of travel through Europe at the turn of the century.  It's a very hard book to locate, but occasionally a copy will show up on EBay.  It sells for around $125.00.


Conway Book   

Clara Conway's  influence on students was deep and lasting.  She died in 1904 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery.

Conway Grave

Conway Grave

Conway Marker

2000 Article




In 1890, Conway was among a group of the elite women in Memphis who assembled at the Gayoso Hotel and founded the Nineteenth Century Club - whose aim was to improve city life and public services.  The club primarily focused on the needs of women and children, addressing public problems such as sanitation, health, education, employment and labor conditions.  The club was immediately successful, with membership steadily rising and peaking at around 1400 members in 1926.  In 2013 the Nineteenth Century Club sold their building and made plans to disband after finalization of the sale.


1904 . 19th Century Club



Like Memphis teacher Jenny Higbee before her, Clara Conway was honored with a beautiful memorial  in Overton Park.  The Conway Memorial Pergola was erected by grateful pupils and admiring friends in 1908.

Sadly the memorial was destroyed in a 1936 windstorm and was not replaced.

Clara Conway Pergola


Pergola Postcard Pergola Postcard . 1911 Pergola Memorial Pergola Detail...



After the Conway Institute closed, the  Conway building was leased by the New University School for several years until they outgrew it.  In 1906, Sacred Heart High School took over the old Clara Conway Institute school building on Poplar.  They later moved to the corner of Jefferson and Cleveland. 


Sacred Heart High






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