What’s the best way to help America’s underclass? Will their lives best be improved by aid from the great foundations, or by hard work, thrift, and self-reliance?
These questions are not only at the heart of the ongoing debate over welfare reform. They are ones that have to be addressed by each generation of philanthropists, which is why the turn-of-the century debate over how best to aid Southern blacks remains pertinent today. In their provocative and largely persuasive book, Dangerous Donations, historians Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss Jr. argue that the single most lasting consequence of the aid given by large foundations to Southern black schools was actually to weaken the schools and make them even more vulnerable to collapse than they were before white donors started writing checks.
Northern philanthropy toward the South largely began with the creation by John D. Rockefeller Sr. of the General Education Board in 1902. Among the more important philanthropists aiding Southern black schools were John D. Rockefeller Jr., Andrew Carnegie, and Julius Rosenwald.
But black schools weren’t simply passive recipients. Illustrating how much times have changed, there was a vigorous intellectual debate about whether such aid was even necessary.
At the turn of the century, black intellectuals tended to join two schools of thought about how the lives of African Americans should be improved. One school, led by Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington, emphasized improving the education of poor blacks, so that they could become productive and independent citizens. A second school, led by author W. E. B. Du Bois, contended that it would be better to concentrate aid on the brightest blacks (or the “talented tenth”), who would then act as a cadre of black leaders and professionals.
Washington and Du Bois also disagreed on accepting philanthropy from whites. Washington was happy to get as many grants as he could from Northern foundations, while Du Bois insisted that African Americans had to aid their own educational institutions if these organizations were to remain free of control by whites.
Thus, when philanthropists crisscrossed the South in a private railroad car, Washington and his associates respectfully escorted them around Tuskegee and other schools. Du Bois, in contrast, ignored Northern aid and wrote a satirical novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (published in 1911), in which, as summarized by Anderson and Moss, a group of Northern philanthropists “steam south on a special railway excursion, uttering a stream of ill-informed judgments and half-baked racist bromides on their way to the black school where the protagonist is a student.” Joining Du Bois in condemnation of the Northern philanthropists was the National Education Association, which in 1914 passed a resolution condemning the foundations created by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr. as “agencies not in any way responsible to the people” that were out to control Southern public schools through their grantmaking.
What effect did all this aid have on Southern schools? Anderson and Moss contend that the aid weakened, not strengthened, independent black schools.
The authors show that top officials of the General Education Board were firmly opposed to the creation of private black-controlled schools. They instead thought the best way to educate blacks was by strengthening public schools. “By keeping alive, largely by Northern money, a large number of inferior Negro schools,” Rockefeller Foundation secretary Jerome D. Greene wrote in a 1914 memorandum, “we might be hindering the Southern communities from regarding Negro education as their own responsibility.” High-ranking Rockefeller Foundation official Abraham Flexner argued that most black private schools were “inefficient” and stood in the way of educational progress.
Rockefeller staffers also contended that if Southern whites had good public schools of their own they would eventually realize that blacks needed better public schools. Thus 81 percent of the aid that the General Education Board gave to Southern education went to white public schools. Most of the remainder went to such elite historically black colleges as Morehouse, Fisk, and Tuskegee. Almost none went to black private schools.
Anderson and Moss also document changes in the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald. When Rosenwald began aiding Southern education in 1913, he at first assisted private schools by offering to pay 20 percent of the cost of operating the school for five years if other donors would pay the remaining 80 percent. Given Rosenwald’s seal of approval, other help was swiftly forthcoming; many small donors, eager to join someone as prestigious as Rosenwald, gave $50 and $100 checks.
But from 1920 onward, Rosenwald’s priorities shifted. The Julius Rosenwald Fund (created in 1917), became dominated by Rockefeller Foundation staffers, capped by the hiring of Rockefeller Foundation vice-president Edwin Embree as Rosenwald Fund president in 1928. Most of the grants to black private schools were cut off, and Rosenwald money largely went to constructing Southern public schools and to creating fellowships (similar to those of the Guggenheim Foundation) for scholars.
Dangerous Donations is thoroughly documented, thanks to painstaking research by Anderson and Moss in the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Library of Congress, and other archives. But the authors made a mistake when they devote almost 40 percent of their book to the history of the American Church Institute for Negroes (ACIN), an obscure Episcopalian charity that aided some private black schools. Anderson and Moss studied the ACIN because its archive has been ignored by other historians. But there’s good reason why the ACIN is obscure, since it was ignored by most donors and did a poor job in running schools. The space the authors devote to the ACIN adds little to our knowledge about the debate about Southern black education.
What was the net result of Northern philanthropy? Ignored by the large foundations, most private black academies withered and died during the Great Depression. The Tuskegee Institute, which in 1902 had been a pioneering experimental institution, was by 1930 “little more than a cautious imitation of a standard American college.” And the ideas championed by Booker T. Washington disappeared for two generations until they were revived by today’s generation of black conservatives. If the big foundations had aided black private schools, Anderson and Moss argue, it’s possible that these secondary schools could have evolved into institutions as important as Morehouse or Spelman.
Dangerous Donations is an important book that calls into question the received wisdom about Northern aid to Southern schools. It is also a timely reminder to donors that their grants often have unintended consequences.
Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center and the author of Should Foundations Live Forever? and The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent.