Strengthening the Southern Poor

  • Prosperity
  • 1902

At the turn of the last century, years before he set up his namesake foundation, John D. Rockefeller and his son Junior began efforts to improve life in the former Confederate states. Rockefeller first endowed the General Education Board in 1902, which by its last grant in 1964 had distributed $325 million. Initially, it assisted local communities with planning and arranging public funding for roughly 800 high schools serving students of all races. The Board’s second initiative was to partner with the Department of Agriculture to educate hundreds of thousands of farmers on improved agricultural methods. One intended byproduct of this increased productivity was a stronger tax base to support the Rockefeller-seeded high schools.

Then in 1909, the board used a $1 million gift by Rockefeller to launch another public awareness and action campaign, this time against hookworm disease. The intestinal parasite, which caused pernicious anemia and sometimes death, was extremely common among the poor of the South, who usually acquired it by walking barefoot around unsanitary latrines. The anemia lowered cognitive functioning and strength, reinforcing stereotypes of low intelligence and laziness among the poor. The Rockefeller funds were used for sanitary surveys, educational demonstrations, and organizing. Local groups and governments would donate additional money and time for diagnosing and treating the sick, as well as explaining proper sanitation techniques.

After an intensive five-year campaign, hookworm disease was nearly eliminated in the South, and many doctors became more familiar with the use of microscopes in medicine. This successful advancement in public health led Rockefeller to expand the program overseas. He endowed the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, and its first initiative was to create the International Health Commission, which took on hookworm and later malaria, typhus, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis. It also created many graduate schools of public health around the world.