Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Philanthropic Program Boosts Education for African American Communities

Ila Upchurch, 1950,
Photo courtesy of the
Arkansas State Archives. 

African Americans have fought for their rights to education for centuries. In Arkansas, the goal of equal access to education was helped by the establishment of a program that funded teaching supervisors in rural, African American schools.

In 1907, Philadelphia philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes endowed $1 million for “The Fund for Rudimentary Schools for Southern Negroes.” The endowment would be used almost exclusively to fund the salaries of teachers who would be supervisors in black schools.

The aid was very much needed among rural, African American communities. In the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington, a renowned African American educator, noted black schools in cities and towns were in much better shape than their rural counterparts. He said rural schools were “wretched, the teacher poorly paid and terms last only three to five months.”

Much of the problem stemmed from a lack of will among white politicians to improve the schools. At times, some white politicians demanded taxes paid by white citizens fund white schools exclusively. African Americans should pay for their own schools with their own tax money, they said. The campaigns to segregate funding for schools ultimately failed, but Arkansas’s support for black schools remained paltry.

Under the new program, county school superintendents chose teachers, referred to as “Jeanes supervisors” or “Jeanes teachers,” to work in rural schools, mostly in the South. The program paid the salaries of Jeanes supervisors. After the supervisors had been in place for several years, program funding was expected to slowly dissipate. The idea was to show politicians the benefits of funding African American schools and to create a will among governments to take over funding teachers’ pay.
To qualify as a supervisor, a teacher must have skill in the “practical arts,” such as domestic skills in cooking or sewing or industrial skills in farming or construction. Jeanes supervisors monitored instruction in schools and supported other teachers while promoting homemaking projects and lobbying for better school facilities. They attended local churches, met community leaders and families, and inquired about local health concerns.

Much of the program’s focus on “practical” education was meant to ease the concerns of white communities. Some white landowners, for example, worried African Americans were too focused on education outside of domestic and farm work, the labor landowners needed to operate their properties. To allay these fears, some African American schools advertised the lack of any nonessential educational subjects. For instance, the Hampton Institute in Virginia prohibited the teaching of Greek, Latin and Algebra at their school.

Still, the program caught on quickly in Arkansas, and by 1913, nine counties had their own Jeanes teacher. J.A. Presson, state agent for African American schools, estimated Jeanes supervisors traveled 11,251 miles and visited 156 school in 1917 alone.

One of Arkansas’s most prominent teachers in the program was Ila Dedia Upchurch, who was born in Buena Vista, Mississippi, in 1892. As a teenager, she entered Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and later attended Shorter College, Philander Smith College and Arkansas A&M University, which today is the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She completed summer training sessions and received higher education credits. In 1925, Upchurch became a Jeanes supervisor in Nevada County. During a typical year, she supervised up to 58 teachers and taught home economics at Yerger High School in Hope during the summer. For all of this, she was paid $1,350 annually.

By the 1940s, Upchurch had so strongly impacted education in southwest Arkansas that she was named assistant supervisor for African American schools in Nevada County. A teacher training school also was named after her. After retiring from education and opened a sewing and alteration shop. She remained active in the community until her death in 1989.

In another example, Mary Robinson, who worked as a Jeanes supervisor in Fordyce, Arkansas, encouraged members of the African American community to donate money to the local school. She was so persuasive she was able to get the community to donate enough money to buy a range and cooking stove, a dining table, six chairs and three sewing machines.

The program improved the quality of education, access to schools and aid for teachers in rural communities, where resources had been systemically denied. The efforts meant more schools, more teachers and more resources for African Americans in Arkansas. For example, during the 1925-1926 school year, the number of African American high schools and teachers doubled, and the graduation rate increased 68 percent over the previous four years’ totals.

By the mid-1930s, the original Foundation was expanded after receiving money from several well-known educational funds. The move created even more opportunities for more schools to have Jeanes teachers.

The program’s accomplishments were achieved despite the anemic financial support among white communities. This lack of support is best illustrated at the state level, where, in 1921, Arkansas invested an average of $31.74 per student in white schools and $8.92 per student in African American schools.

The program also helped to educate those who would become leaders in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The program continued until 1968, after which some counties took over the program and paid teachers’ salaries.

For more information on Arkansas history, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or at Information is also available via the website at