Gillespie Normal School

Dr. A.S. Clark’s institute.

We did a little trip down to Cordele, Georgia, this weekend. Once there, I was a little hazy on the directions, but I spotted A.S. Clark Drive and knew we were good.

Augustus S. Clark was among the cohort of (mostly) young men who erupted from Wilson in the 1880s and ’90s,* determined to lead. Born in the final days of slavery, or just after, they drank in everything J.C. Price and Samuel H. Vick poured at Wilson Academy, went straight to university (often at Lincoln, their instructors’ alma mater), then set out, in Clark’s later words, to “… do what I can for the uplift of my people.”

Dr. Augustus S. Clark (1874-1959). (Photo courtesy of Frank T. Wilson, ed., “Living Witnesses: Black Presbyterians in Ministry II,” Journal of Presbyterian History, volume 53, number 3 (Fall 1985).)

For his part, in 1902 Clark founded, with his wife Annie, the Gillespie Normal School, later Gillespie-Selden Institute, in Cordele. In 1925, the institute added an hospital. (The closest Black medical facility was 142 miles away in Atlanta.) I’ve written of Gillespie-Selden here and finally went to see it.

Gillespie Institute Founded By Rev. and Mrs. Augustus Clark September 1, 1902 Served By Them Until October 1, 1941 Alumni 1942

The school complex forms the heart of Cordele’s Gillespie-Selden Historic District. Below, the school’s administration building, built in 1935.

The girls’ dormitory below, built in 1929, is the most imposing building in the neighborhood.

A rear addition has been largely torn down, and an open door grants access to the interior.

The building holds evidence of fairly recent use as a family resource and daycare center, as well as squatters. All things considered though, it is in pretty good condition.

This room runs the length of the back wall on the first floor.

At the front of the building, a series of small interconnected rooms flanks a central entry hall. I didn’t venture upstairs.

The cornerstone of the girls’ dormitory.

A marble plaque inlaid by the class of 1929.

The President’s House, also known as Dr. Clark’s house, which sits just to the west of the girls’ dormitory. The Clarks retired from active teaching and school leadership in 1941.

Below, Saint Paul Presbyterian, also founded by Rev. Clark. The tin-roofed section at right appears to be the original church, updated with brick.

Gillespie-Selden Institute, Class of 1947, in front of the girls’ dormitory. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Gillespie-Selden Learning Center Facebook page.)

Gillespie-Selden Institute closed in 1956 when Cordele finally erected a high school for African-American students. Named in honor of A.S. Clark, the school eventually converted to an elementary school, but closed in 2014. The building is now under development as a non-profit biomedical institute.

For more about Gillespie-Selden Historic District, see the Gillespie-Selden Historic District National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, which contains this passage:

“Within the Gillespie-Selden Historic District, the outreach missionary role of Dr. Augustus S. Clark (1874-1959) and St. Paul Presbyterian Church is significant to the development of the neighborhood. Dr. Clark completed his theological training at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1897; he was sent by the Presbyterian National Board of Missions to Cordele in 1898 as a missionary to help the struggling Portis Memorial Presbyterian Church. During that same year, a loan was secured from the Board of the Church Erection Fund of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church for the construction of a new church building to be named St. Paul Presbyterian Church.

“In 1902, Dr. Clark and his wife, Anna, realized that there were less than adequate educational institutions for African-Americans to attend in Cordele as well as the entire southwest region of the state. Dr. Clark taught elementary-level and Sunday-school classes in the basement of St. Paul Presbyterian Church, but found he needed more space. … By 1904, enough money had been donated by white members of northern Presbyterian churches, especially the Gillespie family of Pittsburgh, that three buildings of the school complex were constructed. …”

See also, this 2009 design charrette prepared by University of Georgia’s Center for Community Design and Preservation and the 2103 Gillespie-Selden Historic District Design Guidelines.

Another memorial plaque, this one embedded in a brick pillar in front of the administration building.


* This cohort included A.S. Clark’s brothers John H., William H., and Thomas G. Clark, Samuel H. Vick, his brother William H. Vick, and cousin Frank O. Blount, brothers Daniel C. and James T. Suggs, Henry C. Lassiter, Braswell R. Winstead, and Charles H. Bynum, all Lincoln University graduates; the Suggses’ sister Serena Suggs MooreJoseph H. Ward; Ardella Kersey; Mahala Williamson Reid; sisters Ada G. Battle and Geneva Battle Faver; and J. Arthur Cotton.

Photos of G.S.I. taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, June 2020.

Dr. Clark’s normal school.

Adapted from Gillespie-Selden Historic District Design Guidelines 2013:

The Gillespie-Selden Historic District is located in southwest Cordele, Georgia, and is roughly bounded by US 280/GA 30 (16th Avenue) to the south, 13th Avenue and the CSX Railroad to the north, 11th Street to the east, and 15th Street to the west. The Gillespie-Selden neighborhood centers around the Gillespie-Selden Institute campus on West 15th Avenue.

The Gillespie Normal School was founded in 1902 by Dr. Augustus S. Clark and his wife, Anna Clark, to provide educational facilities for African-American boys and girls. The school was named in recognition of the Gillespie family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whose financial gift made the school possible. The Clarks met the Gillespies during a Presbyterian Conference in South Carolina. With the financial gift, the Clarks were able to build a school and support a boarding program. Students from the eastern section of the United States, such as New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, attended the school. Some of the students worked as laborers in the rail yards to attend the institute.

Gillespie-Selden Institute originally consisted of two wood-framed buildings, a faculty of three teachers, and an enrollment of 28 students. In 1923, a hospital was financially secured with a gift of $1,000. At that time the nearest hospital for African-Americans was located 160 miles away. The first nurse was Mrs. Eula Burke Johnson, a graduate of the Gillespie Normal School. The hospital was located on the second floor of one of the early wood-framed buildings and consisted of two beds and one operating room. Local doctors, white and African-American, were on the staff. The Charles Helm Hospital, named for the benefactor, also functioned as a nursing training school. The nurses trained in patient care at the hospital and attended classes at the Gillespie-Selden Institute. In 1937, a 25-bed hospital was constructed near the Gillespie-Selden Institute and named Gillespie Hospital for William Gillespie, who donated the funds needed to build it. The hospital, in cooperation with the state nursing service and under the direction of Nurse Johnson, held weekly clinics for midwives who cared for over 50% of all maternity cases in this area of the state. In 1949, a separate nursing college, Selden Cottage, was constructed to house the nursing program.

The Gillespie-Selden Institute, located at the corner of 15th Avenue and 12th Street, includes a complex of buildings consisting of the President’s Home, Founder’s Home, girls’ dormitory, Gillespie Memorial Hospital, Administration Building and Selden Cottage. The President’s home, built circa 1925 is located next to the girls’ dormitory and is a two-story brick building with Craftsman style detailing. The Founder’s Home, also known as Dr. Clark’s House, is a Colonial Revival style house built circa 1941 and located on 15th Avenue near St. Paul Presbyterian Church. The girls’ dormitory is a three-story brick building with Colonial Revival style features built in 1929. This building was one of the first brick buildings constructed on the campus. The Gillespie Memorial Hospital is a one-story brick building with a center gable built in 1937 with Colonial Revival style features. The Administration Building, built in 1937, is a two-story brick building featuring a center tower with Colonial Revival style detailing. Selden Cottage, which served as a nursing school, is a two-story brick building constructed in 1949.

jackson davis papers uva


In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County, farmer Henry Clark, 39, wife, Florah, 38, and children John, 16, Mary J., 14, Ella, 12, Henrietta, 9, Henry, 8, Augustin, 5, Thomas, 3, and Margaret, 10 months.

On 12 September 1918, 44 year-old Augustus Simeon Clark registered for the World War I draft. His occupation? “Teaching and preaching.”


In the 1920 census of Cordele, Crisp County, Georgia: at 611 – 15th Avenue West, Rev. Augustus S. Clark, 46, wife Annie, 40, and adopted daughter Louise, 14. Annie and Louise were Alabama natives.

In the 1930 census of Cordele, Crisp County, Georgia: A.S. Clark, 55, superintendent of Gillespie School; wife A.W., 52, teacher; daughter K. Louise, 24, teacher; and ten boarders, including a campus laborer, students, a nurse and two teachers.

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One of the testimonials of “Negro college presidents” who joined and contributed to National Urban League’s labor programming, Pittsburgh Courier, 7 July 1934.

In the 1940 census of Cordele, Crisp County, Georgia: at Gillespie Normal School, Augustus S. Clark, 65, president, and wife Anna Clark, 60, dean.

Augustus S. Clark died 28 July 1959 in Cordele, Georgia.

For more on preservation efforts in Cordele’s Gillespie-Selden Historic District, see Gillespie-Selden Design Charrette.