New York merchant Christopher R. Robert was stunned by the lack of schools in the South after the Civil War.
He had an idea to create a great educational institution for young people impoverished by the war. He decided upon Chattanooga due to its accessibility and central location. The Federal Government had property on Lookout Mountain which contained hospitals used during the war. Robert purchased over four hundred acres along with the old hospital buildings. He then gathered over $40,000 to fund the renovations and inventory for equipping the school.
The Lookout Mountain Educational Institutions opened on May 15, 1866. The school promised an education equal to any fine Northern school and offered a primary school for students over twelve years old. Sessions lasted 20 weeks at a cost of $100. The campus was coeducational, with separate study areas but shared dining. Some well known locals attended the school, including Dr. T. H. McCallie and T. H. Payne. The Freedmans' Bureau was doing the work of helping Civil War "refugees" obtain an education, these were often the children of slaves, however, they did decide to provide the funding and transportation for orphans of Union soldiers as well as "others left destitute" after the war. Many students would have attended by making use of the Freedmans' Bureau funds.
The school closed in June of 1872 and accounts of the reasons for this decision vary. One account states that local support of and attendance at the school withered after Robert made it clear that African American students would be welcomed to the school. Another account is that a lengthy litigation over the school's property had become too expensive. Yet another account is that Robert's other school endeavor in Turkey seemed more likely to succeed and that he threw all of his resources toward that project.
A very old scrapbook in the library's collection dates back to March 1866, just before the school opened, and sheds light on the reasons for closing. The scrapbook was maintained by the school superintendent. He added a historical reminiscence, in which he notes, "Much was being done by others for the blacks; [Robert] planned a school for the white youth, whose educational facilities had been seriously interrupted...", this statement clarifies Robert did not intend to enroll the children of slaves. Another article from a New York newspaper, published when the school closed, pleaded with Southerners to keep the school open and to start including African American students. The superintendent does give Robert's age and failing health, "long-pending litigation", and the need for funds at the college in Turkey as reasons for the closure. The institutes closed and the property was eventually sold to the Lupton family (and Fairyland was developed on the site).
Robert had met well known missionary, Cyrus Hamlin, who had been opening trade schools in Turkey so that his school students could earn funds for schooling and clothing. The two men joined forces and resources to create a modern American style university. By 1864 the school in Turkey had its charter from the New York State Board of Regents. Ten years later it was recognized by the Sultan of Turkey, making it a very prestigious school with good relations with the Turkish government. The school is known for educating many of Turkey's leaders since the republic was established in 1923 as well as several graduates with success in many other fields of study.
Today's Robert College is an elite prep and high school with the only admission requirement being the performance of the student. Children must be in the top percentages of testing to attend. Gender, race, religion, and personal wealth still do not factor into the admissions process. Tuition is paid through the school's foundation, which started after a $30,000 inheritance was received after the death of C. R. Robert in 1878, and has been continued by alumni. This year Robert College of Istanbul celebrates 150 years.
This brief history about The Lookout Mountain Educational Institutions and Robert College was compiled from the file on Robert College and the L.M.E.I. school scrapbook housed in the Local History & Genealogy Department of the Chattanooga Public Library, as well as the Robert College website. The scrapbook contains ads, circulars, an index of names, sections on students and faculty, a guest register, and articles about the college in Turkey. The maker and keeper of the scrapbook handed it over to Ann Hyde Bachman who intended to write a history of the school on Lookout Mountain. There is a note of the intention to place the scrapbook with the Chattanooga Public Library so that former students might consult it.