On October 6, 1826, Andrew and Mary Ann (Boyd) Bell welcomed the birth of their first child, a little daughter they named Margaret Kerr Bell.
The Washington Female Seminary provided to Margaret the most worthy education she could obtain, a diploma more like the honor a modern high school graduate receives than the degree bestowed upon a student completing college.
One of Margaret’s students described her in her early years as, “A thoughtful, dark-haired child, whose unselfish nature made her glad that ‘sister was the prettiest,’ a diligent, bright-eyed school girl, whose sprightliness and accuracy won the admiring notice of sage committees of examination.”
When Waynesburg College was established in 1849, the founders also planned for a Female Seminary to educate female students separately from their male counterparts in Waynesburg College. Like Margaret’s alma mater, the women in this divided system would receive only diplomas, while the men would receive degrees. Margaret was brought in to lead the female school as its very first principal and teacher. From the beginning, she must have showed the great promise she would deliver, for in the summer of 1850, Joshua Loughran, the first President of Waynesburg College, ended a speech to his future students and the community, by promising, “Wait till Miss Bell comes, and then we will do great things.”
Under her guidance and careful influence, the separate and unequal idea, though it had been the initial intent, lasted only one year. Classes began according to plan in November 1850 with Margaret teaching the ladies on the second floor of the Green House; while the men received their education on the second floor of the Hayes Building, later the site of the Messenger Building. The gradual onset of co-education began the next year in November 1851 when all students, male and female alike, moved into classrooms in the newly completed College building, later known as Hanna Hall. Though in separate classrooms at first, a combination of policy, forward thinking and Margaret’s leadership eventually put men and women scholars side by side at the blackboards and pronouncing their recitations to the same professors. The first three women to graduate in 1852 received diplomas as planned, but just five years later in 1857 three more women stood up to receive Bachelor’s Degrees. By this incredible accomplishment, Margaret’s students became among the first women in the entire state of Pennsylvania to receive college degrees. In just seven years Margaret had applied her capable heart and mind to transforming the female educational system.
Margaret’s marriage to Alfred Brashier Miller in March 1855 created the partnership that ensured the survival of Waynesburg College. A. B. Miller had been present at the College from the first day of classes as a student in 1850, to his graduation as the valedictorian of the first male class in 1853, to his appointment as Professor of Mathematics that fall. In 1859, he became College President.
Margaret was a living example of the working mother in a day when it was almost unheard of. She taught classes six to seven hours a day, performed the duties of leadership as her husband’s partner, and also the responsibilities of wife, mother and hostess in a College President’s house.
Margaret was the mother of eight children, a wife of nineteen years, a teacher and a leader of twenty-four years, when on the evening of February 10, 1874, probably from sheer exhaustion, she suffered a stroke that suddenly silenced her powerful voice and restricted her active body to her bed. Her respected life ended on April 27, 1874 at just forty-seven years of age. Her oldest child was only eighteen years old, and her youngest not yet two.
The College alumni recognized Margaret’s self-sacrifice and remarkable impact; together they raised funds to purchase a tombstone placed at her grave in Green Mount Cemetery, the inscription reads, “Erected by the Alumni Association of Waynesburg College as a memorial of the noble woman and devoted teacher who gave the best twenty four years of her life to the work of building up the institution of which she was the pride and ornament.”
- Compiled by Candice Buchanan, local historian and genealogist, author of A Waynesburg College Family: The Legacy of Alfred Brashear & Margaret Kerr (Bell) Miller (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).