New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Education

Foundations and Education Reform in the Jim Crow South

Editors’ NoteJoan Malczewski continues the site’s philanthropy & education forum.

William C. Chance established the Parmele Industrial Institute in Martin County, North Carolina, in 1910. Chance was an experienced educator with great ambitions, but it was difficult in the Jim Crow South to sustain an independent black school. Four years later, when his house was dynamited, likely by local white supremacists, Chance decided to accept northern foundation funding and an appropriation from the local government in exchange for turning the school over to the county. He remained principal and continued his fight for expanded educational opportunity for African-Americans but reported to the county superintendent, and his beloved institution was subsumed by the state and renamed the Martin County Training School. His decision would likely lead to a loss of local autonomy but guaranteed additional public and private funding for black education in Martin County, while the state of North Carolina brought an independent black school into the public system. Northern foundations that were active in southern education reform promoted and facilitated such arrangements, along with a range of programs that simultaneously expanded education and the state.

The Rockefeller-funded General Education Board (GEB), Negro Rural School Fund (Jeanes Fund), and the Rosenwald Fund contributed significant sums of money to southern education reform in the early 20th Century. While many philanthropists promoted the cause, the trustees of these three funds worked closely together, creating an interlocking directorate with powerful potential. Education historians have indicted northern foundations for promoting an education vision that served business interests by stabilizing the labor force and the economy, with an industrial education curriculum in segregated schools. Chance’s Faustian bargain demonstrates the difficult and complex terrain for black education reformers. Foundation programs failed to address adequately the gross inequality between southern blacks and whites in the early 20th Century. Yet, as I argue in a forthcoming book, when foundation work is considered through the lens of progressivism and state building, an alternate narrative emerges that recognizes both its limitations and its considerable efficacy, and which both complements and complicates the earlier scholarship. Northern philanthropists might have sought hegemonic control, but educational institutions provided opportunities for rural blacks to exercise agency beyond what reformers ever envisioned.

The South presented problems that threatened the development of a stronger nation, including weak economic and political systems, a large number of illiterate citizens in both white and black areas, and an uneducated labor force. The modern foundations were self-conscious state builders and policy entrepreneurs who aimed to promote national ideals through a public system of education. Southern schools in rural areas were generally isolated from formal governance structures and the lack of state standards for public schooling and limited managerial or educational expertise at the local level meant that there was minimal oversight, little data available, and wide variation in school terms, teacher training and remuneration, curriculum and pedagogy.

Many progressive reformers believed that schooling provided a means to strengthen both state and local governance, educate students, and serve as a conduit for disseminating national ideals, not just to children in classrooms, but beyond the school walls and into the homes of community members. Foundation reformers believed black education reform to be an important component of this national agenda. They promoted a range of programs to strengthen state and local governance capacity. Their efforts to create a more centralized and standard system of public education brought isolated and rural black schools into the public system and enhanced local administrative capacity.

North Carolina provides an interesting case study. State politicians in the early 20th Century sought a stronger system of state governance and collaborated extensively with foundations to achieve it. They believed universal education central to economic and political development—in schools that would remain segregated and unequal. Foundation programs included field agents who had positions in the formal governance structure and at least partial remuneration from foundations, reporting simultaneously to state or local politicians and their foundation benefactors. For example, the State Agent for Negro Education was an experienced white educator located in the Division of Public Instruction who promoted rural black education. He was appointed in consultation with the General Education Board, which provided partial funding for the position. The Jeanes Teachers, appointed in local communities, were typically black women who received foundation support but reported directly to county superintendents and indirectly to the foundations through the State Agent. Black education reformers also held positions in the state as supervisor of black elementary schools, supervisor for black high schools, and Rosenwald Fund field agents who oversaw schoolhouse construction. They helped to strengthen administrative oversight of both schools and local communities. With the help of these field workers, foundations integrated government agencies and functions with regard to black education.

Foundation programs in North Carolina also promoted tax reform, school consolidation, term-extensions, minimum teacher salaries and standards for certification, systems of data collection, and a philanthropic mode of funding that both co-existed with state and local budgets and operated discretely. These initiatives helped to coordinate public schooling and overcome problems of administrative capacity, rationalize state education policy by creating minimum standards, and promote forms of oversight that connected local schools to state level governance structures. Foundation reformers hoped to create bureaucratic autonomy for public education based on educational expertise rather than partisan and local rule.

Yet if national in scope and ambition, foundation work was ultimately local and required the participation of actors at every level of governance. Educational policy specifically and political development generally were driven not just by experts and policymakers at the top, but also by local reformers, including rural black citizens. Without the extensive collaboration with state actors, private interests and local citizens, it was virtually impossible for foundation programs to be effective. Foundations believed that the county Jeanes Teachers would be important for local initiatives, implementing foundation programs and promoting stronger administrative structures and oversight. They also believed that the teachers could help to end the isolation of rural schools because they were required in their positions to participate in the broader reform dynamic. At the same time, most white superintendents had little real interest in black schools and provided some latitude to teachers to manage the operations of their schools. The Jeanes Teachers typically served as the de facto superintendent for black schools and were central to foundation based local reform because of their roles as community organizers, fundraisers, and school supervisors.

Collaboration between public and private interests resulted in an expanded system of universal and public schooling, and stronger governance structures at the state and local level. That developing bureaucracy created the space for community participation and gave African-American teachers an important role in expanding the local administrative structure for schooling and in influencing both state and local decisions about rural black education. In North Carolina, deep collaboration resulted in more than 800 new Rosenwald schools, a Jeanes teacher in more than half of the counties, state standards for teaching and certification that included black teachers, an expanded local tax base, and stronger administrative systems. The system remained segregated and grossly unequal at the same time that schooling facilitated political development and black agency, even if strictly bounded by the racial state. Schooling created links between rural communities and the political structure outside of them, with greater potential for rural blacks to participate as political actors beyond the borders of their local community. Ultimately, North Carolina developed a more centralized and bureaucratic governance system with greater authority vested in the state, especially with regard to education, and foundation work helped to create these shifts in the authority of schooling.

Foundations were but one of a set of institutional actors, and a powerful one at that, but still not sufficiently powerful relative to the formal institutions that existed at the federal, state and local level. Whites committed to Jim Crow and typically hostile to universal education, wielded almost complete political authority at the local level. Through the institution of schooling, foundations hoped to move the locus of control from local communities to the state. It would be easier to influence a state system of schooling than thousands of local districts and help to ensure that the public assumed full responsibility for the education of its citizens. Their expansive organization and ability to consider a range of complex issues gave foundations considerable policymaking leverage among competing interest groups in the South. Blacks had a marginalized role in the reform dynamic, but were essential at the local level, and foundation reform programs could not have happened without them.

While schooling was an important site for redefining the relationship between local communities and the state in North Carolina, foundations programs were less effective with regard to creating an educational infrastructure and promoting an expansion in state capacity in those states where collaborative action with state and local actors failed to develop. North Carolina education reform demonstrates the importance of schooling as an institutional site for state formation and in providing formal venues for marginalized citizens to participate in policy and political development, even if severely circumscribed by the racial state. Contemporary public discourse in both K-12 schooling and higher education may lead to new efforts to redefine the relationship between education and the national state, and the potential for greater federal intervention and extensive foundation influence. While the locus of control may increasingly centralize at the federal level, schools will continue to play an important mediating role between the national state and civil society. Foundations working in the early 20th Century South recognized that role and were most effective when programs were transparent and inclusive of state interests, elite political actors, and local communities.

-Joan Malczewski

Joan Malczewski is Assistant Professor of History and Social Studies at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. She is interested in the relationship between education and the state, particularly the role that schooling plays as an institution that mediates between the state and civil society. This commentary presents some of the arguments presented in her forthcoming book on foundation work in southern education reform.

2 thoughts on “Foundations and Education Reform in the Jim Crow South

  1. Dear Joan,

    The final two sentences (and particularly the last one) stood out to me: “Foundations working in the early 20th Century South.. were most effective when programs were transparent and inclusive of state interests, elite political actors, and local communities.” I took pause at the use of the word “effective” and the list of three interest groups. It made me think back to the foundation-supported education reform you outline above during the early decades of the 20th century & Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” (1895) where he explained how this form of segregated vocational and industrial education for black Americans reflected the combined interests of three groups: Northern white industrialists, the Southern white majority, and black Americans as a whole. My question is the following: To what extent should foundations’ education efforts for minority groups reflect the interests of other, more powerful groups beyond the targeted minority groups? By blending and balancing interests, don’t foundations risk achieving effectiveness (or rather, policy impact among state actors and ‘elite political actors’) at the expense of addressing the actual needs, desires, and aspirations of minority groups? To a more fundamental question then: When foundations fund education and shape education programs for minority groups, what should their purpose be?

    Very best,


  2. Maribel,

    Thank you for your comments. The word “should” implies that there is some agreed upon definition of foundation behavior, though it is really a question of values. In the case of early 20th Century southern education reform, the broader mission of building a strong state shaped particular foundation objectives. The expansion of a public system of schooling that included rural black citizens was one of their goals. Your questions imply that when foundations seek to benefit particular groups, like rural black communities in the South, those groups should define mission. Some foundations may believe that. However, foundations often work with particular groups when the needs of that group align with broader foundation interests, even when the specific objectives are not the same. The foundations I discuss in my book believed their programs would benefit rural black communities, but they did not necessarily see themselves as serving those communities. Instead, they facilitated collaborative relationships among a range of political actors that had competing visions for southern progress, but could work together to build a stronger state. There is a long history of the role of associated action between state and private interests in promoting policy and political development.

    Your comments also raise important questions about the meaning of “efficacy” in the context of philanthropy. There is a rich body of scholarship that has appropriately indicted the early 20th Century foundations involved in southern education reform for trying to exercise hegemonic control, promoting an inferior industrial training curriculum, providing more money to white schools than black ones, and accommodating the racial state. However, what is particularly interesting about foundation work in the Jim Crow South is that associated action so extensively included the participation of marginalized black citizens, who often made a kind of “Faustian bargain” to work with foundation reformers. While there is not enough space here to summarize the book’s arguments, it is useful to point out that organizational change always has unintended consequences and rural black reformers in some areas had a significant impact on local programs. Indeed, the institution of schooling shaped rural communities and brought into the public sphere policy decisions that were typically determined by local and partisan rule by connecting rural black schools in some regions to state systems of education.



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