UT Knoxville, 1882
Part of the Tennessee Alumnus‘ 100 Distinguished Alumni feature.
At 16 years old, Philander Priestly Claxton embarked on a career that would earn him the nickname “Crusader for Public Education in the South.”
Born in a cabin in Bedford County, Tennessee, Claxton moved beyond his early education at local “cabin schools.” He attended UT Knoxville, completing a bachelor’s degree in 1882 in two and a half years. According to his biography, Philander Priestly Claxton, written by Charles Lee Lewis, those two and a half years consisted of “four years of Latin, three years of Greek, four years of mathematics, two years each of German and French, one year of Spanish, and courses in chemistry, physics, astronomy, physiology, botany, zoology, biology, geology, history, English, logic and Christian ethics.”
Claxton graduated second in his 16-member class. To pay off his college debt, he began teaching at an elementary school in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He soon became superintendent of schools in Wilson County, North Carolina, followed by the same position in Asheville, North Carolina. He later became a professor of pedagogy at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
In 1902, Claxton returned to Knoxville to become a professor of secondary education at UT. Then he became an inspector of high schools and eventually the U.S. commissioner of education in Washington, D.C. At 68, he accepted his final position as president emeritus of what was then known as Austin Peay Normal School in Clarksville, Tennessee.
He died in 1957 at age 95. That building on the Knoxville campus—the Claxton Education Building—was named for him less than a year after his death. It remains today a tribute to his advocacy for and lasting influence on education.