During the COVID-19 pandemic, when virtual school became an option for many students, I thought about my school-age family members in rural Arkansas who don’t have access to broadband internet service. Virtual school was never an option for them. For generations, access to education for Black, rural students in America has been an ongoing struggle.
When I thought about my school-age family members and their lack of access to virtual school, I also thought about the Jeanes supervisors who worked to ensure Black, rural students throughout the south had access to education.
I grew up in rural Drew County, Arkansas, and years before I was born, a Jeanes supervisor served my community. The supervisor in Drew County was one of the hundreds of Jeanes supervisors who educated the masses in the rural south and served as exceptional community organizers.
In 1907, Quaker Anna T. Jeanes created a $1 million endowment for Black educators in rural schools throughout the southern United States. The endowment was known as the Negro Rural School Fund or Jeanes Fund. Virginia Randolph, a Black, rural educator, led the way for the Jeanes movement.
Jeanes started the fund to help rural schools that did not receive much private or public funding. The educators who received funding through this endowment were known as Jeanes supervisors. By 1930, the Jeanes Fund had supervisors in over 40% of Southern counties.
The Jeanes supervisors were excellent community leaders who also demonstrated industrial arts expertise. While these were general characteristics of the Jeanes supervisors, these teachers’ work went beyond industrial education and “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.” These educators were public health workers, social justice activists, and community philanthropists.
Public Health Workers
Jeanes supervisors were often at the forefront of organizing and serving rural citizens during public health crises. For example, a massive flood along the Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas left 127 people dead, millions of dollars in property loss, and disease outbreaks. Jeanes supervisors partnered with the American Red Cross and Arkansas home demonstration agents to vaccinate children against typhoid, Diptheria, and smallpox after the flood.
Additionally, Jeanes supervisors worked alongside nurses to help combat the Influenza outbreak in 1918. Others raised funds for Easterseal’s to help Black families fight tuberculosis. Some also partnered with state associations that taught the supervisors health education. The health education included sexual health and sanitation practices. The supervisors taught what they learned to their local communities and ensured any public health concerns were addressed locally.
Social Justice Activists
Many Jeanes supervisors understood their responsibility to educate and uplift others. They often trained and organized local leaders and connected them with other activists who worked on behalf of other Black, rural people in the Jim Crow south. A part of the training consisted of teaching local leaders to articulate their local communities’ needs to procure resources and programs beneficial to their community.
The activism of Jeanes supervisors maintained and strengthened communities. As a result of the training and activism, many rural people who were on the brink of losing their land during World War I did not lose the land. Jeanes supervisors also increased teacher pay, expanded the school year, and procured land for educational purposes through their activities. Some supervisors and the leaders they trained also became founders and leaders of local NAACP chapters.
Jeanes supervisors also became activists in their classrooms. Often, white funders did not financially support schools that taught rural, Black youth anything but Booker T. Washington’s industrial education, but many Jeanes supervisors opted to resist Washington’s philosophy and threats from white funders. These supervisors taught liberal arts such as Black history and literature, and they saw their roles as agents of Black, rural progress.
Jeanes supervisors raised funds to assists schools and teachers with needed resources. These supervisors throughout the south raised $4.7 million in 10 years to help fund the Rosenwald School Building Fund. Rosenwald schools housed many Jeanes supervisors, so they reinvested the money in their local communities.
Additionally, Jeanes supervisors supported other teachers. A Jeanes supervisor in northwest Arkansas gave a desk and a chair to a teacher who taught fifty students in a one-room school. Other supervisors helped raise money to send their colleagues to national meetings hosted by groups like the United States Department of Interior.
Jeanes supervisors understood that their work went beyond the classroom. They worked as community philanthropists and embodied the poem “Brang Dat College Home.”
The End Of Jeanes Supervisors
Black, rural women in the southern United States educated and organized communities and faced insurmountable racism. Their resilience, creativity, and love for people and their communities existed before the Jeanes investment, but the endowment helped fund their work for about two generations. In 1968, during school desegregation, the Jeanes supervisors program ended.
School desegregation did not stop the work of rural, Black women or systemic racism. Female educators and organizers continued working for community empowerment through community uplift and education. The Citizenship Education Program led by Septima Clark and Freedom Schools led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are two examples of movements that built on the supervisor’s work. The Citizenship Education Program and Freedom Schools formed a bridge between the community education and activism of the Jeanes generation and a new generation of activists like those in SNCC and the Black Power movement.
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