Peabody’s Reconstruction Schools

  • Education
  • 1867

After the Civil War, the American South was badly battered, and improving its economic and social prospects became a central part of repairing our national union. Religious groups were the first to offer aid, including schooling for children. Then philanthropists outside of church structures took up the cause of boosting educational opportunities for young Southerners of all stripes.

Baltimore banker George Peabody took the lead. Barely a year and a half after the bullets had stopped flying, in early 1867, Peabody established America’s very first formal foundation, the Peabody Education Fund, with a gift of $2.1 million and a charge to raise the standard of schooling throughout the South without racial considerations. The fund ultimately distributed about $4 million across the region, building schools, training teachers, and offering scholarships for higher education. One of its lasting achievements was in creating a high-quality college for teachers at Vanderbilt University, which sprinkled instructors throughout the southern states for generations, right up to the present. The Peabody Fund was also important for inspiring others to take up the cause of upgrading the schooling available to everyday Southerners. A half dozen very active endowments, often working in close collaboration, eventually showered money, buildings, expertise, and encouragement on Southern education for several decades, strengthening and creating institutions at the primary, secondary, and college levels alike. (See 1907 entry.)

In addition to helping heal egregious regional sores, the Peabody Fund was a leader in what education historian John Thelin calls “long-distance philanthropy”—moving dollars out of the donor’s home area to locations of special need. The fund was also the first U.S. philanthropy to focus on one social problem. And it was a pioneer in relying heavily on trustees to guide its giving, and in other operational aspects that later became common in modern philanthropy. George Peabody was thus a powerful influence not only on other givers in his place and time, like Enoch Pratt and Johns Hopkins, but also on later American philanthropists like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Gates, all of whom have cited the generous and thoughtful Baltimorean as a model and inspiration, causing historians to refer to him as “the father