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San Francisco State Normal School -1903- A Personal History

by Gail MacGowan

Pictured here is the San Francisco State Normal School in 1903 and after the earthquake and fire of 1906. What was to become today’s San Francisco State University opened in 1899 in this rented building located on Powell between Clay and Sacramento Streets. Of the plain stone structure, which had previously served as a church and as Boys’ High School, one faculty member wrote, “It would be difficult to locate another normal school building that was as old, inconvenient, or depressing.”

Following is the story of one of the first graduates of San Francisco State Normal School and her connection to two extraordinary San Franciscans.

My grandma was privileged to know and learn from two of the towering figures of turn-of-the-century San Francisco: pioneering educator Dr. Frederic Burk and indefatigable social worker Donaldina Cameron.

Born in 1880, Susie Towt McDougall grew up on her family’s small ranch atop Mount Toro, between Salinas and Monterey. To her and her family San Francisco was always “The City.” She finished grammar school in a one-room Mount Toro schoolhouse – only getting into Salinas a couple of times each year for shopping trips. The second of eight children, she had to wait several years for some of her siblings to complete their grammar school studies before her mother moved with all of the children down into Salinas so that they could attend high school, leaving her father to tend to the ranch on the mountaintop. After graduating at the top of her class, Grandma convinced her parents to let her go off to the The City to enroll in the new teachers’ college that had just graduated its first class of 36 women in 1901. Tuition was free, but room and board with San Francisco families cost from $4 to $5 per week upward – surely a significant sacrifice for the Towt family back in Salinas.

The San Francisco State Normal School was already gaining wide attention for the new teaching methods being introduced by its president, educator Frederic Lister Burk, pictured below with the Class of 1903. Grandma frequently spoke with great fondness and respect of Dr. Burk, who had done post-graduate work at Stanford in child development and psychology. He considered teaching, like the ministry, to be a calling. The school’s entrance requirements, the most rigorous in the state, included a private interview with Dr. Burk to determine if candidates had the proper dedication to the work. Fifty years ahead of his time in pioneering innovative educational concepts, Dr. Burk advocated the radical practice of self-paced “individual instruction” to supplement the general classroom curricula for the immigrant children with very different backgrounds and abilities who filled California’s classrooms. He also required student teachers to gain several hours a day of practical teaching experience in the Normal School’s “Model School” of 25 children from varied backgrounds, including “misfits” who had failed to fit in elsewhere.

But my grandma’s strongest memories were of the student teaching she did in neighboring Chinatown at the Occidental Mission Home for Chinese Girls, today renamed the Donaldina Cameron House after its dauntless leader, who came to work there in 1896 and stayed for forty years. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Acts first passed by Congress in 1882, San Francisco’s large population of Chinese men was not allowed to send for wives from China nor to marry non-Chinese. The result was a huge slave trade, with Asian girls, some younger than 10, bought from their impoverished families in China, kidnapped, or coerced into coming to the United States, where they were given false papers or smuggled into the country. Once here, the disenfranchised and vulnerable girls were bought and sold as property, either as domestic servants or, more frequently, prostitutes, a hard life that most did not survive for more than five years.

Donaldina Cameron (1869-1968) became famous for her nighttime raids of Chinatown, when she rallied the San Francisco police to batter down false walls and rip open trap doors to rescue the terrified girls being kept hidden in San Francisco’s densely-populated Chinese neighborhood. She rescued and educated nearly 3,000 of these girls and is credited with breaking the Chinese slave trade in the United States. And my grandmother was a small piece of this story when, as a student at the Normal School, she taught the Chinese girls rudimentary English skills so that, freed from their slave masters, they could fend for themselves in their new country.

Photos were handed down to Gail MacGowan from her grandmother.

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San Francisco State Normal School, 1903.

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San Francisco State Normal School, 1906.

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San Francisco State Normal School Class of 1903. Seated in center: Dr. Frederic Burk. Immediately to his left is Susie Towt McDougall, grandmother of City Guide Gail MacGowan.

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