Column: SEF at 157 years and counting

Building on SEF’s history, making a greater impact

By Raymond C. Pierce

President and CEO, Southern Education Foundation

As we prepare for the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in May, I’m reflecting on the storied history of the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) and the promise of our work today.

Just before the Brown decision in May 1954, colleges and universities in the South refused to house a team of researchers examining the state of education for Black students. Instead, they lived and worked at SEF headquarters, located at the time in a small brick building in Midtown Atlanta.

That courageous action, one of many, is representative of our work today to improve education in the South, with a specific emphasis on Black students, other students of color, and students in low-income families.

At a time when many political forces threaten justice and equity, SEF is undergoing a significant expansion. In recent years, our team at SEF has nearly doubled in size, to nearly 30 staff members. SEF is now poised to make its greatest impact in decades in advancing our mission toward greater education opportunity.  

SEF’s origins and accomplishments

Founded as the Peabody Education Fund in 1867 by philanthropist George Peabody to build some of the South’s first schools for Black students, SEF as we know it was formed in 1937 by the merger of the Peabody Fund and two similar education funds.

One of these funds, the Jeanes Teachers Fund, began in 1907, developing and mobilizing hundreds of Black educators across the South to provide the first on-site training and support for educators — and life-skills workshops for people living in rural communities.

Many prominent national figures served on the boards of SEF and its predecessors. Booker T. Washington, President William Howard Taft, and Andrew Carnegie were board members for the Jeanes Fund. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, and four other former U.S. presidents also served on the boards of the foundations that eventually were consolidated into what is now SEF.

Benefiting from such distinguished leadership, SEF would build a long tradition of supporting the growth of leaders who advocated for improvements and more equitable education opportunities for students. We awarded W.E.B. DuBois his first fellowship — allowing him to continue his graduate education and publish his powerful book, The Souls of Black Folk. Throughout the 20th century, we convened educators, advocates, policymakers, and scholars — always for the purpose of growing education opportunity.

SEF also played an important role in the founding and growth of many HBCUs, including Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), Spelman College, Morehouse College, Winston-Salem State University, Jackson State University, and Tuskegee University. We have also helped HBCUs meet tougher accreditation standards and improve the efficiencies of their operations. Today, we still advocate for HBCUs and their critical role in graduating a sizeable proportion of our region’s Black students.

Our work today — and in the future

Today, SEF’s policy and advocacy work has become more visible in our region’s 17 state capitals and Washington, DC. We meet regularly with legislators and other leaders to push for more plentiful and equitable school resources, new investments in HBCUs, and many others steps forward. Working with many partners in the South, we actively push back on private school vouchers and classroom-censorship laws that threaten to reverse our racial progress in the South and across this country.

Our new Early Childhood initiative builds on SEF’s long tradition of work to improve the lives of young children. We recently launched the Southern Early Childhood Education Justice Network, bringing advocates together to push for expanded programs and services, including new attention to the costs of child care and the low pay for many caregivers.

Our leadership development programs at SEF support emerging and more experienced leaders in education. We also publish important research and data on education and ensure that our policy recommendations and services to schools are grounded in research. Watch for our forthcoming revival of the Miles to Go series with a report on the state of education for Black students across the nation.

In addition, SEF is more active than ever at addressing some of the most critical issues around education equity. Some of this activity includes:

Supporting investments that work. Our Outcomes Based Contracting (OBC) program supports the growing number of school districts that require clear benefits to students for vendors providing high-impact tutoring and other services are paid in full. The OBC approach is shifting the paradigm for school-resource investments and opening the door for additional investments in education. Our OBC work has been featured in The New York Times and Education Week among other news outlets, a new research brief from the National Student Support Accelerator based at Stanford, and a recent report from the Education Recovery Scorecard led by researchers at Harvard and Stanford.

Empowering schools to address inequities. The Equity Assistance Center-South is a federally funded center based at SEF that serves school districts, states, and educators as they work to eliminate disparities based on race and other factors as required by federal law. In addition to the EAC-South’s useful webinars and research-based resources for schools, the center provides free, expert assistance to school districts in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Turning the tide against school segregation: Brown’s Promise, a nonprofit organization based at SEF, is developing new strategies to reverse racial segregation and inequitable resources in schools.

Building on our history, SEF’s work is especially critical today. We have come so far in education in the South yet have many miles to go before every child has the opportunities they deserve. I am grateful for your interest in SEF and invite you to become a regular supporter of our work.

Raymond C. Pierce is the president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation. Contact him at