The Burwell School


A place of beauty and history
Open to the public Wednesday - Sunday
Free admission

Anna Burwell

1810 - 1871

The Burwell School Historic Site brings important 19th century history alive for 4,500 visitors a year.  The three buildings (house, classroom building and "necessary") stand on two green, shaded acres alon Churton Street in Hillsborough's Historic District; the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

From 1835 - 1857 this property was the home of the Rev. Robert Armistead Burwell, his wife, Margaret Anna Robertson Burwell, and their twelve children.  For twenty of those years they operated a landmark girl's academy for both day and boarding students, Mr and Mrs. Burwell's Academy for Young Ladies.  Over 200 girls from NC and other states pursued a "classical English education" through a four-year course of study, with an emphasis on composition, literature, grammar, mathematics and science, French, art, music, philosophy and more.  Mrs. Burwell was the central force of the school whose goal was to create "thorough scholars and useful members of society."  At least five schools were started by Burwell School students and the Burwell family also led the Charlotte (NC) Female Academy (now Queens University) and Peace Institute in Raleigh, NC (now William Peace University).

After the departure of the Burwell family in 1857, the property was home to a series of families including, notably that of Josiah Collins III of Somerset Place plantation in eastern NC.   The extended Collins family family took "refuge" there for several years during the Civil War.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly

1818 - 1907

As an antebellum southern academy, the Burwell School admitted only white girls, although the Burwell household included several enslaved servants and workers.  Among them was a literate, talented and determined young African-American Burwell family slave, Lizzy Hobbs.  During her seven years in Hillsborough she endured loneliness, hard work, even severe beatings, and a forced relationshiop with a local white man resulting in the birth of a son.  Later, in the St. Louis household of Rev. Burwell's sister, where she had been put to work as a dressmaker, she was able to purchase freedom for herself and her son George.  Under her married name of Keckly (her husband James died after eight years of marriage) she established herself as a successful dressmaker and businesswoman in Washington, DC, and became "mantua maker" (designer/dressmaker) to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.  During Mrs. Lincoln's time in the White House Mrs. Keckly was a trusted companion and confidante.  Mrs. Keckly's autobiography, "Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House," is both a slave narrative and a unique account of private life in the White House and is still consulted by scholars today.  Mrs. Keckly actively supported important African-American causes during the Civil War, including founding a "contraband society" in Washington to assist former slaves.  In later years she taught Domestic Arts at Wilberforce University, after which she returned to Washington and was a figure of great dignity and admiration.   She died in 1907. 

In 2018 the Burwell School will observe the bicentennial of her birth with events and exhibits.


Tea and History June 11



Five O'Clock Tea, Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt/via Wikimedia

We have a charming and interesting afternoon planned for you!   Join us on a Sunday afternoon for teatime and a chance to hear a distinguished scholar share her research into some Hillsborough history.  Dr. Sylvia Hoffert will talk about Maria L. Spear, the leader of the Hillsborough Female Academy, an Episcopal girl's school that operated during some of the same period as the Burwell School.  There are very interesting aspects to Miss Spear's time in Hillsborough -- and drama!

We'll have tea, lemonade and some delicious nibbles.

Dr. Hoffert holds a PhD. from the Univerisity of Indiana-Bloomington.  Now retired and a member of the Historic Hillsborough Commission, she has had a distinguished career in women's history, holding professorships at UNC-CH and Texas A&M University.  She is a Fellow of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.  Dr. Hoffert is the author of five books and numerous articles.

Admission is $5; you can purchase your ticket that the Burwell School or through Eventbrite (no fee).

Click here to reserve your seat(s) to Tea and History.

Dr. Sylvia Hoffert

The Friends of the Burwell School

This beautiful place is almost 200 years old and needs your friendship to enter her third century in good shape.  The Historic Hillsborough Commission, a volunteer board established by the NC General Assembly in 1963, needs YOUR help to keep up with the needs of the site.  Will you join the Friends of the Burwell School? 
Annual basic membership is only $35 but all giving levels are welcome. 
Click here for more information.