Mary Elizabeth Phillips was born of Scottish American parents in Plum Run Valley, Chartiers Township, Pennsylvania, in 1855. She came to Alabama to teach at Talledega College. Although Phillips was not a native Alabamian, her significant contribution to education is inextricably bound to the State of Alabama.
In 1896, Phillips assumed the leadership of Lincoln Normal School as its sixth, and first female, principal. The secondary mission school, funded by the American Missionary Association, faced distressing problems, as the AMA was finding it difficult to finance its vast educational system throughout the South. When, at the end of the school year, the AMA announced that the school would be closed, Phillips, with the help of the parents and the faculty, arranged to keep it open. So Lincoln Normal School lived, and Phillips dedicated the remaining thirty-one years of her life to fostering its development.
At the age of seventy, Phillips married Clovis Leonder Thompson. When she died in 1927, Lincoln Normal School had twenty-six teachers and more than 597 students in grades kindergarten through twelve. On a spacious campus were a forty-acre farm, two large academic buildings, three dormitories, a domestic science/teachers' home building, a shop, a laundry, a small gymnasium, a barn, and an old plantation mansion.
No history of Black American scholars can be written without including Lincoln Normal School and Mary Elizabeth Phillips. During the 1970s, while conducting a study of African-Americans holding Ph.D. degrees, Dr. Horace Mann Bond found that a disproportionate number of these scholars had family roots in Perry County, Alabama. Further study of their backgrounds led Bond to conclude that Lincoln Normal School was the decisive factor in their accomplishments. These scholars and other African-Americans of high achievement whose roots lie in the rural predominately Black, impoverished, and culturally deprived county, bear testimony to the influence of Lincoln Normal School. Bond concludes, "It was the unusual energy and courage of Miss Phillips, working with determined parents, that built Lincoln Normal School and kept it alive for decades."
Shortly after Phillip's death on March 2, 1927, a journalist wrote, "Her real and imperishable memorial is one of flesh and spirit built into manhood and womanhood, a monument which neither moth nor rust nor time can destroy." On the Sunday after her death, several Lincoln Normal alumni gathered on the campus to plan a memorial, and because of their efforts, Phillips Memorial Auditorium was dedicated on May 30, 1939.
Alabama Women's Hall of Fame