A League of Willing Workers: The Impact of Northern Philanthropy, Virginia Estelle Randolph and the Jeanes Teachers in Early Twentieth-Century Virginia

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Improvements in southern African American schools and communities in early 20th century Virginia came with the assistance of philanthropic organizations. The Jeanes Fund, in its own right and as a conduit for other philanthropic agencies, helped solve "the rural school problem." The Jeanes Fund recognized the work of Virginia Randolph whose philosophy and teaching techniques were adopted by the Jeanes teachers, a group of African American rural school supervisors, of which Virginia Randolph was the first. This article details the work of Virginia Randolph and the Jeanes teachers, illustrating how their contributions throughout the South earned accolades for local school and community improvements.

In the early twentieth century, very little attention from local public school boards was given to southern, rural African American schools. Reflecting that neglect, the conditions of those schools were quite inferior to the White schools within the same community. The term "rural school problem" describes the major challenges that African Americans in Virginia and throughout the South faced in their communities and schools. Students were often housed in overcrowded, dilapidated, and unsanitary buildings. There was no compulsory education law; therefore, school attendance was poor. For example, schools could be deserted for several weeks due to inclement weather, illnesses, and seasonal occupations where students, for instance, depending on the main crop, were needed to work in the home or field to augment the family income. As a result, the continuity of education and learning was broken. Furthermore, most African American teachers were not properly educated, many having only slightly more education than their pupils. Poor living conditions prevailed in the community, and very few resources, if any, were available to assist totally indigent families.

All these problems were set in the political, legal, and economic climate of "Jim Crow" and resulted in large part from that ideology. The Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision of the United States Supreme Court legitimized the idea of "separate but equal" for Virginia and her sister southern states. The root notion of "Jim Crow," continuously promoted the belief that African Americans were inferior to Whites, and that they should be kept in a servile condition. The South embraced the 1896 ruling in all its policies and practices related to African Americans, including educational policies and practices. All African American schools in the South were indeed separate from their White counterparts but were far from being equal. Discrepancies impairing African Americans prevailed in teachers' salaries, expenditures per pupils, appropriations for building schools, and favorable decisions of local superintendents. The Jim Crow era continued into nearly two-thirds of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, great advances occurred in that period in primary and secondary education of African Americans that softened aspects of the "rural school problem."

Explanation for these strides lies beyond legal and political dynamics. Some answers stem from fundamental economics and the individuals themselves within the repressed group, or rather, a combination of these two factors. Anderson and Moss (1999) pithily described the southern states as experiencing a "remarkable educational revival" between 1901 and 1915 (p. 41). By 1920, profound improvements had occurred throughout the South, although Virginia and her southern sister states still lagged behind the nation in education. Nevertheless, southern states saw increases in educational spending, particularly expenditures per pupil, extension of school terms, and drops in illiteracy rates-benefits that improved education for African American children.

THE RURAL SCHOOL PROBLEM

In 1902, John D. Rockefeller organized the General Education Board (GEB) in New York to administer funds for the promotion of education in the South. …