ACS Beirut History
In October 1914, when Belle Dorman ‘25 attended her new school for the first time, World War I had been raging across Europe for just two months. Yet that did not matter to Belle. Despite the fact that she lived in the Ottoman Empire, which had just entered the war on the side of Germany, Belle was much more concerned with Miss Winifred Thornton (Fac.).
Belle’s new school was called the Faculty School; it would later be known as the American Community School at Beirut. The Faculty School was beginning its tenth year in October 1914. Miss Thornton, a “precise English woman” as Belle remembered, was the principal of the Faculty School. For some reason Thornton’s glare through her pince-nez glasses was particularly menacing to Belle, causing the first grader to scream for the entire walk to school.
When the Faculty School first opened its doors in 1905, Ras Beirut was on the rural outskirts of Beirut, separated from downtown by citrus groves and mulberry plantations. The neighborhood that became known as Hamra had no electricity, no automobiles, and few two-story buildings.
The American University of Beirut was still called the Syrian Protestant College at that time; the College’s few dozen expatriate American professors and their spouses needed a school for their children. These families wanted their children to be prepared for universities back in the United States, so they desired a distinctly American-style education.
Since such a school did not exist in Beirut, they created one. The professors hired Thornton, who was already employed as a private tutor for the Bliss family, to run the school. The parents formed committees to find two other teachers, order textbooks from New York City, set the curriculum, and rent a suitable space for classrooms.
On Belle’s first day in 1914, the Faculty School had grown from 18 students to over 40. There were still no science classes; the school offered neither athletics nor arts. Classes began each morning with a recitation from the Bible and a hymn. The curriculum emphasized the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. Thornton assigned seating according to marks with the top-scoring students in the back and the low scoring students in the front.
Misbehavior was not tolerated but the atmosphere could be a bit chaotic. Those guilty of infractions incurred “order marks” and a detailed report was sent home to parents at the end of each month. Despite Thornton’s best efforts, students still misbehaved. Belle remembered having her pigtails dipped in an inkwell by the boys sitting behind her. Another student remembered wandering donkeys peering in through the window as particularly distracting.
World War I came to Beirut in 1915 when the British navy, anchored off the coast of the Syrian Protestant College, lobbed ninety shells into the city. Thus began the Allied blockade of Beirut’s once thriving port. The Ottoman Turks conscripted locals to fight and confiscated crops in order to feed their army. In 1916, the Turks also deported British residents, including Thornton.
While the Americans were never deported en masse like the British, the 25 or so American families that remained in the College community had to confront famine throughout the war. In 1916, Turkish officials instituted a voucher system where families in Beirut were allotted limited amounts of food. The system quickly broke down, leading to widespread starvation. One historian describes dozens of people starving to death each week in the streets of Beirut. Estimates vary, but over the course of the war, as many as 300,000 civilians may have starved to death or died of disease in Beirut and the surrounding areas.
What did the children of the Faculty School witness? How did they survive? Their connection to the Syrian Protestant College helped. Since the College volunteered their medical staff for the benefit of the Turkish army, College President Howard Bliss gained special privileges and access to food for members of the College community.
Nonetheless, the children still witnessed scenes of massive suffering that they never forgot. Several families ran soup kitchens in the villages around Beirut. Others worked at orphanages that tried to cope with the flood of Armenian refugees. As Rachel Hall ‘23 recalled decades later:
The starving villagers began crawling down to the city looking for food. Family groups camped out by the side of the road where we walked to school. We knew that a “death cart” came through each morning to pick up the dead. And I, as a nine-year old, have a very vivid memory of those starving people with their dark hollow eyes, and the children lying on rags, with distended bellies, too weak and sick to sit up.
The low-point came in 1917. In April, the United States declared war on Germany. The local Turkish authorities responded by surrounding the College and shutting it down for two weeks. More Americans fled. One Faculty School parent was arrested and deported under the false claim that he was a spy. Another Faculty School parent, one of the original founders of the school, died of typhoid fever. A third Faculty School parent had a nervous breakdown.
Things got so bad that the parents met in June 1917 to discuss whether or not to shut the school down. The Faculty School lacked pupils and teachers were nonexistent. Due to inflation, the cost of living skyrocketed. There were no more textbooks. Despite these challenges, the parents of the Faculty School chose to keep the school open. Parents volunteered to be teachers and students were encouraged to create their own “notebooks” to take the place of traditional American textbooks.
The school survived the remainder of the war. Remarkably, the demand for the Faculty School increased immediately after the war. By 1919, the year after the war ended, enrollment was already higher than it had been in 1914. The other small schools catering to foreign missionaries in the area had been wiped out by the famine. The Faculty School, by the simple fact that it stayed open, became one of the most popular English-speaking primary schools in the region.
After the war, the school moved out of the old building next to the hospital and into a larger building just off of Jeanne D’Arc Street. Amy Bliss, the widow of President Howard Bliss and part of the original group that organized the school in 1905, donated the land. Professor Hall, the parent deported as a spy in 1917, returned and rewrote the school constitution in 1921 to include the Protestant Mission as a second “sponsor”. That document renamed the school the American Community School at Beirut.
After 1921, ACS would no longer be run by a close-knit group of parents. It would never again be so closely affiliated with the Syrian Protestant College, which in 1921 renamed itself the American University of Beirut. Instead, it became increasingly integrated with the larger community of expatriates in Beirut, Lebanon, and Syria.
Belle Dorman graduated from the new ACS in 1925, eleven years after her first day at the beginning of the war. By the time she graduated, ACS was a school with a new boarding department, completely new teachers, a new campus, athletic teams, and a music department.
In addition to the changes within the school community, ACS had just survived the first of many dramatic external revolutions; no longer part of the Ottoman Empire, the school was instead situated in the newly created French mandate known as Lebanon.