A Black Woman "In Orthority": Claiming Professional Status in Jim Crow Alabama

By Hoffschwelle, Mary S. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2015 | Go to article overview

A Black Woman "In Orthority": Claiming Professional Status in Jim Crow Alabama


Hoffschwelle, Mary S., The Journal of Southern History


HER REPORT WAS LATE, AND SHE HAD TO EXPLAIN WHY. "I MUST beg pardon for delay in my reports.... Work in this county is, indeed, a struggle against very great odds and it takes almost perpetual motion with one's ear to the ground to cope with prevailing conditions." (1) Thus A. Wells Henderson, the Jeanes teacher for Autauga County, Alabama, introduced herself to her new supervisor in January 1919. (2) Henderson's career as an educator in Jim Crow Alabama reveals the challenges that professional black women faced as they negotiated the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality in their relationships with other black and white women and men. Her experiences also open a window into the overlapping and intersecting networks that linked educators, ministers, and private citizens to public officials and philanthropic foundations. Henderson's struggles deepen our understanding of reform by revealing how those networks alternately promoted and stymied social change and racial uplift in the Jim Crow South.

A. Wells Henderson made her career in education, one of the few professions open to black women. As a school principal, a Jeanes supervising industrial teacher, and then the supervisor of all Alabama Jeanes teachers, Henderson rose to one of the top positions in public education open to black women in the segregated South. A rich body of scholarship on African American teachers emphasizes their importance to the long-term freedom struggle and identifies Jeanes teachers like Henderson as crucial leaders for black communities. (3) Jeanes teachers took their title from their philanthropic sponsor, the Anna T. Jeanes Fund. Anna Jeanes was a white Quaker philanthropist from Philadelphia who donated $10,000 each to Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute and another $200,000 to the General Education Board for school improvement campaigns in rural African American communities. Shortly before her death in 1907, Jeanes set aside $1 million to establish the Negro Rural School Fund, Inc., more commonly known as the Jeanes Fund. The fund provided aid for county school systems to hire supervising industrial teachers for rural black schools. Jeanes teachers orchestrated vocational classes as well as school improvement and community uplift projects, following the precedent set by rural educator Virginia Estelle Randolph of Henrico County, Virginia. They combined the industrial education agenda championed for rural black southerners by Tuskegee, Hampton, and most white reformers with the zeal for community and racial uplift shared by many educated black women. Starting in the 1920s, Jeanes teachers added instructional supervision to their purview and by the 1930s had become elementary school supervisors. Jeanes teachers continued their work as curriculum supervisors after the Southern Education Board took over the Jeanes Fund in 1937, and they often served as administrators for black schools until the integration of the South's public schools. (4)

All Jeanes teachers were black, and almost all were women. Like many other black female professionals, Jeanes teachers applied their academic training in service to their communities for the purpose of racial uplift. (5) They mentored black teachers and parent-teacher associations and served as liaisons between black and white communities and school officials. "Jeanes teachers saw themselves as agents of progressivism," according to Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, who includes in her landmark study Gender and Jim Crow the legendary North Carolina Jeanes teacher and state supervisor Annie Welthy Holland. Valinda W. Littlefield has studied Holland's "assertive yet nonconfrontational" approach to white education officials, demonstrating that first-generation Jeanes teachers like Holland and her colleagues were "institution builders" who practiced an inclusive approach to educational reform. (6)

A. Wells Henderson did not cut the heroic figure that Virginia Randolph or Annie Holland did, for she sought to strengthen black teachers and communities by advancing her own authority over them. …

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A Black Woman "In Orthority": Claiming Professional Status in Jim Crow Alabama
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