The founder and principal of the Haines Institute in Augusta for fifty years (1883-1933), Lucy Craft Laney is Georgia’s most famous female African American educator. She was born on April 13, 1854, one of ten children, to Louisa and David Laney during slavery. Her parents, however, were not enslaved. David Laney purchased his freedom about twenty years before Laney’s birth; he purchased his wife’s freedom sometime after their marriage. Laney learned to read and write by the age of four and could translate difficult passages in Latin by the age of twelve, including Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War. She attended Lewis (later Ballard) High School in Macon, which was sponsored by the American Missionary Association. In 1869 Laney joined the first class at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University), graduating from the Normal Department (teacher’s training) in 1873. Women were not allowed to take the classics course at Atlanta University at that time, a reality to which Laney reacted with blistering indignation.
After teaching in Macon, Savannah, Milledgeville, and Augusta for ten years, “Miss Lucy,” as she was generally known, began her own school in 1883 in the basement of Christ Presbyterian Church in Augusta. The school was chartered by the state three years later and named the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. Originally Laney intended to admit only girls, but several boys appeared and she could not turn them away. Laney began her lifelong appeal for funding for her school by traveling to a meeting of the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis in 1886. She addressed the assembly but received only her fare home. She did, however, obtain the confidence of a lifetime benefactor, Mrs. Francine E. H. Haines, for whom her school was named. By 1912 the Haines Institute employed thirty-four teachers, enrolled 900 students, and offered a fifth year of college preparatory high school in which Laney herself taught Latin. Haines graduates matriculated at Howard, Fisk, Yale, and other prestigious colleges, where they reflected the confidence and pride that Laney and her staff had instilled in their students.
Haines not only offered its students a holistic approach to education but also served as a cultural center for the African American community. The school hosted orchestra concerts, lectures by nationally famous guests, and various social events. Laney also inaugurated the first kindergarten and created the first nursing training programs for African American women in Augusta.
In Augusta Laney helped to found the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in 1918, and she was active in the Interracial Commission, the National Association of Colored Women, and the Niagara Movement. She also helped to integrate the community work of the YMCA and YWCA. Her friends and students included Mary McLeod Bethune, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Nannie Helen Burroughs, W. E. B. Du Bois, Joseph Simeon Flipper, John Hope, Langston Hughes, Mary Jackson McCrorey (the associate principal at Haines from 1896 to 1916), William Scarborough, Martha Schofield, Madame C. J. Walker, Richard R. Wright Sr., and Frank Yerby. Laney died October 23, 1933.
Lucy Craft Laney, the Reverend Henry McNeal Turner, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. were the first African Americans to have their portraits hung in the Georgia state capitol; they were selected by Governor Jimmy Carter in 1974. Laney’s portrait bears tribute to “the mother of the children of the people,” a woman who knew that “God didn’t use any different dirt to make me than the first lady of the land.” She was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement in 1992.