History & Traditions
On December 6, 1759, a group of citizens, concerned about the education of their children, met with Daniel Mackinett at the Green Tree Inn on Germantown Road. At this meeting, The Germantown Union School (now known as Germantown Academy) was founded.
The Early History of Germantown Academy
Germantown Academy had its beginning in the midst of the struggle that surrounded the birth and growth of a new nation. The bell tower and the bell that announces the beginning of each school year have become symbols of continuity and perserverance. The first two “Headmasters,” James Dove and Hilarius Becker, had far different approaches to education. Dove held fast to the authority of the paddle and sarcasm; while Becker was almost “modern” in his style, using kindness and empathy to cajole his students into learning. Becker was much praised for his sensitive teaching style, and soon a one-Headmaster school was growing steady.
The bell was cast in England and brought over on the tea ship "Polly" in 1774. Because of the unrest in Philadelphia at that time, the "Polly" turned around and, with cargo intact, headed back to England. It was not until 1784 that the bell was returned and placed in the bell tower. The weather vane, with its crown of England and copper ball, attests to its presence during the War for Independence by the scars it bears from musket balls fired by British soldiers. They had occupied the area and used the school building as a hospital for a brief time during the Battle of Germantown. The troops of General Howe's Third Brigade used the playing fields for the first cricket match played in America.
The second English Master in the school's history, Peletiah Webster, devoted much of his energy to improving the quality of education offered; at the same time he encouraged the board of managers to seek a charter from the state. The charter was granted in 1784 to the "Public School of Germantown," which remains the Academy's corporate title to the present day.
The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 made it necessary for President George Washington and his cabinet to leave Philadelphia for the higher altitude of Germantown. During his residence there, his cabinet met at the school, where he later enrolled his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, as a student.
As early as 1767 instruction for girls was proposed. In 1797 a second attempt was made to enroll girls. In 1831 A. Bronson Alcott, educator and father of Louisa May Alcott, was Master and 19 girls were registered at the Academy. This venture was soon terminated, and for the next 125 years only young men were graduated. Head masters of great quality, such as Dr. William Kershaw who stayed at the helm for 38 years and Dr. Samuel E. Osbourn for 33 years, were able to establish a tradition of academic excellence, and the school graduated men of dignity, perseverance, and honesty.
It was natural for a school that had been a part of the colonial period of American history to choose red, white, and blue as her colors. However, in 1875 the white was changed to black as a tribute to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and to the Academy boys who had served their country in the war. The colors remain red, black and blue today.
In December of 1958, one year before the bicentennial of the Academy, the Board of Trustees voted to accept the offer of Robert McLean of 160 acres of rolling meadow and woodland in Fort Washington. It was agreed that in order to serve the whole community, the Academy should enroll both boys and girls as had been done in earlier years. Here in Fort Washington we have had an opportunity to create buildings and playing fields for more than double the number of students than could be accommodated in Germantown.In September 1965, through the generous efforts of the Trustees and Friends of the Academy the move from Germantown to Fort Washington was completed.
Hail Our Alma Mater...
A school 260 years old understandably enjoys quite a few traditions. Some traditions are as old as the 1700s, while others have been born in the last decade. All make Germantown Academy the amazing school that it is today.