By Samuel Wilson // April 7, 2022
Today, on April 7th, we commemorate the birthday of the notable Quaker philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes. Anna Jeanes inherited a considerable fortune, and in the later years of her life decided to dedicate a large sum of her wealth to causes that would better society, including dedicating funds for the education of newly emancipated Black people, their children, and poor White children in the South. She accomplished this goal by creating the Jeanes Fund which provided training to Black teachers in the South for this purpose. Many years later, the Jeanes Fund consolidated with the Slater Fund and the Peabody Fund (which had similar goals) and the Randolph Fund (named for the first Jeanes Teacher) to form the Southern Education Foundation.
Anna T. Jeanes and the work she did was therefore, in a certain sense, the predecessor and foundation for SEF. Her philanthropy and commitment to providing education helped fuel more than 150 years of the Southern Education Foundation’s work, including the establishment of kindergarten in the South. That means we certainly have a lot to celebrate, be thankful for, and reflect on today.
Anna Jeanes was born to a Quaker family in 1822 and lived in Philadelphia, PA She was the youngest of ten children and by the time she was 72, she was left with no nieces or nephews, leaving her the sole inheritor of the family fortune. She decided to give away her fortune to various philanthropic causes, including primary education in the South. She established the Negro Rural School Fund, which later became known as the Jeanes Fund. It is notable that at Jeanes’ insistence, Booker T. Washington sat on the Board of Trustees of the Jeanes Fund.
For those familiar with Quakers and their history, Anna Jeanes dedicating her fortune to pressing social issues of the day, like education of the formerly enslaved, may not come as a surprise. Anna Jeanes was certainly not the first Quaker to show such a dedicated concern for improving the conditions of the most vulnerable in society, nor was the she last. Quakers have a long history of social concern and action, which often placed them ahead of their time, leading new ways forward, and which often put them at odds with the rest of society.
From the beginning, the first generation of Quakers in the 17th century opposed war and advocated for prison reform, as they felt their religious leanings called them to do.
Later on, many Quakers firmly opposed the institution of slavery and assisted in helping enslaved people reach freedom in the North through the underground railroad. Jeanes, herself, provided assistance to people seeking to escape slavery.
More recently, Bayard Rustin, who was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement and served as an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was himself also a Quaker.
Now to be fair, Quakers certainly did not leave a perfect legacy. Unfortunately, there were Quakers who owned slaves, including the prominent Quaker William Penn, and Quakers had differing levels of opposition to slavery or involvement with abolitionist movements.
However, flawed and imperfect as it may have been, Quakers did certainly still leave a legacy of involvement and concern for the issues of their times, as they felt that their religious promptings and testimonies called for upholding the values of peace, nonviolence, simplicity, and equality, among others. These values and the legacy and influence of other Quakers certainly would have had an impact on Anna Jeanes and her thoughts and actions.
For me, as a Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) Fellow at SEF, it is interesting to reflect on the impact that Anna Jeanes had, and the connections between Quaker history and the history of this organization. Went I went into QVS this year, I wanted to, among other things, learn more about equity issues, and deepen my understanding of Quakerism and its history. I did not expect to see so much connection between these areas. During my initial interview with SEF, I was impressed and intrigued by the work of the organization, and to learn how the intricacies of particular policies and practices are connected to equity in education. However, I had no idea there was any sort of connection between this organization and Quakers. I find it encouraging to see how the work of Quakers in the past affects the present. Going forward, as I continue my work at SEF and learn more about Quaker ideals and history, I hope to not only learn more about connections like these, but to feel inspired by them, to see how I feel called to action in my own life.
Reflecting on this day on the contributions made by Anna Jeanes over a hundred years ago, it is interesting to imagine what would have been different had Anna Jeanes not made the contributions she had. I’ve heard before that if you travel back in time, you must be careful not to do so much as step on an insect, because the effects one small action has can ripple out and entirely change the present. Had Anna Jeanes led a different life, things would certainly be different now. However, Jeanes certainly did not work alone. There were many others— Jeanes Supervisors and Teachers, leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and other philanthropists and abolitionists – who also made invaluable contributions to increasing access to education for African Americans in the South. So today, let’s reflect on all the efforts made by Anna Jeanes, by Jeanes Supervisors and Teachers, and by all who contributed to the work of the Jeanes Fund and to public education in the South, including the Southern Education Foundation. Without all these brave trailblazers, history would have been much different, as would the present.
Interesting as it to think of what would be different if the past had taken a different turn, it doesn’t really change the present. It might well be true that if you went back in time, the slightest action you take would alter the present, for better or worse. Seeing as we can’t travel back in time though, this is a bit irrelevant. What might be more pertinent for our own lives is this: If any action we could take in the past would have such an extreme effect on the present, then surely any action we take in the present would do the same for the future. That may sound like a lot of pressure, but it’s also a great opportunity. We may not all have a fortune to give away, or the ability to be a teacher, but any action we take, or don’t take, still has an immeasurable effect. So let’s not just celebrate the birthday of Anna T. Jeanes today, but let’s let her example inspire us to take the actions today, however seemingly great or small, that will create a better future tomorrow.
Samuel Wilson is SEF’s Quaker Voluntary Service Fellow.