. White Philanthropy For Black (Mis)education | Ceasefire Magazine

White Philanthropy For Black (Mis)education On Corporate Power

Michael Barker looks at the central, highly ideological, role played over the past 150 years by US white philanthropists in shaping education policies for blacks, promoting the freedom of the few to exploit others, and the freedom of the many to endure it.

New in Ceasefire, On Corporate Power - Posted on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 12:00 - 5 Comments


Black students during a class on the assembly and repair of telephones at Hampton Institute (1899)

Controlling the spread and evolution of institutionalized education has always been a foremost concern of the ruling class. Barely disguised by the humanitarian rhetoric of philanthropy, white power brokers have played a central role in ensuring that the steady extension of educational facilities across the globe serves to miseducate the bulk of its recipients: promoting the freedom to exploit others (for a few) and the freedom to endure exploitation (for the rest).

William Watkins’ book The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954 (Teachers College Press, 2001) thus provides a clear-sighted analysis of the history of black education. A historical undertaking which Manning Marable has described as “an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the complex relationships between white philanthropy and black education.”[1]

Watkins “destroys the myth that the debate between [W.E.B.] DuBois and Booker T. Washington over the character of schooling actually determined the future of educational policy toward African Americans.” Demonstrating that while the debates between such influential men may have been important, ultimately they “were minor players in the formation of black schooling and the philosophy that lay behind it.”

In this way Watkins “cuts to the very heart of the matter,” reviewing the key contributions made by the real power brokers such as General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, J.L.M. Curry, William Baldwin, Robert Ogden, Thomas Jesse Jones, Franklin Giddings, and the Rockefeller and Phelps Stokes’ family, friends and funds.[2]

Of Watkins’ architects of Black education, “none is more important than Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839-1893)” — an individual who “was an effective and farsighted social, political, and economic theorist working for the cause of a segregated and orderly South.” Having served as a missionary and solider; in 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Armstrong joined the Freedman’s Bureau, and a few years later (as their operations were wound down, owing to white opposition), he went on to found the Hampton Institute.

In this work, Armstrong sought to avoid class conflict, and aimed to reconcile the differences between racial supremacists and those seeking equality while “working for the powerful”; promoting a “version of human uplift [that] was absolutely compatible with the most despotic and oppressive political apparatus.” Appropriately he went on to serve as the mentor for Booker T. Washington, who emerged as the Hampton Institute’s “prize student.”[3]

With such influential protégés, Armstrong and his Hampton Institute’s message of racial accommodation, gradualism and moderation was spread far and wide, and “played no small role in creating a Black compradore class for the twentieth century.” The importance of this endeavour should not be underestimated.

Black compradores have anchored the Black South. They have been pious, conservative, obedient, and loyal to the sociopolitical order. They have supported gradualism, incrementalism, and non-violence over revolution. They have provided a sometimes prosperous middle class without which the capitalist economy could not have stabilized. (p.61)

Armstrong, of course, was but one man, and amongst the powerful forces shaping his life’s work was the interventionist Phelps Stokes family, which was “instrumental in the development of the missionary charity of the mid-nineteenth century as well as the corporate philanthropy of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century.”[4] Watkins demonstrates how various members of the family contributed towards the creation of capitalist-friendly public policies that focused on minority and immigrant education, activities which after many decades were institutionalized in 1911 in the form of the Phelps Stokes Fund.

Reverend Anson Phelps Stokes, Jr. took up the mantle of the family’s philanthropic mission at this time, and the following year also became a trustee of the Rockefeller family’s powerful General Education Board, eventually resigning as the secretary of Yale University in 1924 so he could become the president of the Phelps Stokes Fund. In this way, Anson Jr. “supported an ideology that was to help shape a half-century of Black education and political life in both the United States and Africa” and was personally “instrumental in translating missionary and corporate charity into accommodationism.”

While the Phelps Stokes family pioneered many of the American ruling classes philanthropic endeavours, it should be recognized that the Phelps Stokes Fund itself was in many ways “built upon the ideology and practice” of the Rockefeller-backed General Education Board — which had been founded by John D. Rockefeller Sr. in 1902 “to fit Negro education into the political and social life of the country.”[5] The Rockefeller family took their role as white architects of black education seriously, and with a host of powerful  associates elevated earlier attempts at social engineering to a whole new level.

First, they assembled and linked a disparate group of people and interests into a power bloc. Regional loyalties, distrust of big wealth, and partisan outlooks meant that the assembling of individuals was most important. The Rockefeller forces skillfully brought together the aforementioned northern industrialists, corporatists, bankers, railroad people, and merchandisers with philanthropists, southern segregationists, politicians, and southern educators, including university presidents and other advocates of expanded public education.  … This assemblage was easily positioned to effect consensus for action and the shaping of policy.” (pp.133-4)

Next, Rockefeller elites consciously set about developing the necessary ideological framework that would stabilise the new corporate industrial order: “The broad objectives [of which] called for a thoroughly reannexed and orderly South, the expansion of public schooling for all, the maintenance of cheap Black labor, and the continuation of Black subservience and segregation.”

Thirdly, by calling for the mass education of both whites and blacks, they succeeded in limiting popular criticisms of their support for a colonial educational system for Blacks. Fourthly, they provided unswerving support the Hampton model of education which focused on preparing Blacks for manual labor in factories, that is, jobs that were rapidly being made redundant by mechanisation.

Additionally, by promoting “scientific” philanthropy, they “demonstrated how gift giving could shape education and public policy.” And the sixth and final achievement that Watkins attributes to the Rockefeller associates vis-a-vis their philanthropic efforts, was that their “projects provided a model for early-twentieth-century corporate support for Negro education.”[6]

Elected by no one, these [philanthropic] agencies wielded government-like power. Accountable only to themselves, they were private entities making sweeping educational and public policy. Because they could totally finance and administer projects, their actions had the effect of law. No twentieth-century para-statal or nongovernment organization has enjoyed such influence. (p.20)

Given the large degree of influence welded by the philanthropic enterprises of the Phelps Stokes and Rockefeller families, it is important to recall that two early philanthropic bodies that provided much of the institutional inspiration for the founding of the ruling classes emergent charitable empire were the George Peabody Educational Fund and the John F. Slater Fund (founded in 1867 and 1882 respectively).

Of these two bodies, the Peabody Fund was the most influential, and while the millions of dollars that had been set aside for the Peabody Fund were derived from George Peabody’s individual financial wealth, his death soon after launching the Fund (in 1869) meant that “Peabody himself was not really an architect of Black education.” Indeed, at the time of his death, the “brain trust” that had advised him consisted of Robert C. Winthrop, Charles P. McIlvaine, Hamilton Fish, and Barnas Sears.

Barnas Sears, the president of Brown University, thus ran the Fund — successfully promoting industrial education for blacks — until 1881 when the “arch segregationist and staunch secessionist” J.L.M. Curry became the General Agent for the Peabody Fund, a position he held until his death in 1903. In 1891, Curry also became a trustee of the Slater Fund, where he “was immediately made Chair of the Educational Committee, which gave him the same duties as General Agent.”

In later years, Curry went on to serve on the board of directors of both the General Education Board and the Southern Education Board, and although Curry and his colleagues “embraced privilege and racism,” Watkins adds, “their task, as they saw it, was to create a viable political structure in which the privilege of wealth and race did not totally pre-empt democratic participation.” That is, they “had to wed democracy to plutocracy.” This was no easy task, and “In many ways the forging of this endeavor helped to teach America’s corporate industrial ruling class how to rule.”[7] Indeed, as Watkins concludes:

New ways of deliberating and implementing policy had to be found. New explanations had to be rendered. New populations such as Blacks and immigrants had to be considered, although certainly not equally. New ways of compromise had to be explored. The North had to reannex a recalcitrant South. The corporate ordering of society had to be undertaken. These were no small chores. Black education became a model, perhaps even a template. The ruling class had a great exercise in how to rule. They learned how to compromise, how and when to be inclusive or exclusive. (p.183)

[1] Manning Marable cited on the back cover of the paperback edition of The White Architects of Black Education.
[2] Robin D.G. Kelley, “Foreword,” in Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education, p.xi.
[3] Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education, p.43, p.44, pp.44-5, p.59. “In many ways, Armstrong was a kind of White supremacist pluralist. While other White supremacists suggested draconian measures that would have led ultimately to fractured, dysfunctional, and unstable race and societal relations, Armstrong called for ‘unity in diversity.’ Sounding like a 1990s cultural pluralist, Armstrong understood that racial subservience could be reconciled to the new democratic order. The rhetoric of equality easily could be wedded to the practice of racism.” (p.57)
For more on this history of the Freedman’s Bureau, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper & Row, 1988); or more recently, Mary Farmer-Kaiser, Freedwomen and the Freedmen’s Bureau: Race, Gender, and Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation (Fordham University Press, 2010).
[4] Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education, p.81. Thomas Jesse Jones, who to critical scholars (like Carter Woodson and W.E.B. DuBois) was referred to as the “evil genius of the black race,” was another significant individual whose life’s work was intimately entwined with the accommodationist educational community. But despite his reactionary politics, he “viewed himself as an enlightened progressive and modern social reformer.” Thus his brand of sociology was “aimed toward a new industrial society facing the complex issues of postslavery race relations, massive immigration, urbanization, and the new politics of industrial wealth and poverty.” (p.103) As Watkins explains:“Jones’s concern lay with the viability of early twentieth-century America. The reform community, consisting of scholars, urban social workers, church missions, charity people, and corporate philanthropies, to which he was attracted was refining an ideology. That ideology looked to gradualism and planned social change as guideposts. A working or common ground between wealth and poverty had to be identified. Jones was a future leader in this reform movement, influenced by his work in the settlement house movement in New York City.” (p.104)
Watkins notes that Franklin Giddings — who was “the major influence on and Ph.D. dissertation advisor to Thomas Jesse Jones” (p.62) — was a “ideologist and social engineer” whose work offered the blueprint for a new industrial order based upon “planned racial segregation”. (p.80)
[5] Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education, p.92, p.135, p.133. On the influence of foundations, Watkins writes: “Examining nineteenth-century foundations, such as Rockefeller and Phelps Stokes, offers a chance for reflection on the twentieth-century philanthropic movement in general. Situating the new philanthropies within American society is important because of their tremendous impact. Elected by no one, these agencies wielded government-like power. Accountable only to themselves, they were private entities making sweeping educational and public policy. Because they could totally finance and administer projects, their actions had the effect of law. No twentieth-century para-statal or nongovernment organization has enjoyed such influence. “(p.20)
[6] Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education, p.134.
[7] Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education, p.172,p.161, p.176, p.180, p.181, p.182.

Michael Barker is a researcher and activist. His ‘On Corporate Power’ column appears monthly in Ceasefire. He tweets at @mbarker_mike


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Michael James Barker’s Weblog
Feb 22, 2012 13:40

[…] White Philanthropy for Black (Mis)education, Ceasefire Magazine, February 21, 2012. […]

happy smiles
Feb 23, 2012 17:13

Middle class philanthropy to ensure middle class aspirations – This is surely the importance of their ‘whiteness’ while remaining an important concept within philanthropy today?

Michael Barker
Feb 27, 2012 11:00

This essay actually dealt with ruling class philanthropy not middle-class philanthropy which of course is equally problematic since it generally supports the work of ruling class philanthropists.

Elena Herrada
Aug 6, 2014 21:22

This is the model at work in Detroit Public Schools- or what’s left of them after “emergency management” and closing of schools and increasing debt.
The elected school board- of which i am one, has no authority. The non profit sector has control of all programming inside the schools, as well as the unswerving control of parental involvement. To criticize them is to risk losing funding for projects, making schools increasingly unequal.

Roberto Martinez
Aug 8, 2014 1:35

Thank you, Elena Herrada, for bringing Watkins’ argument to the present day. The non-profit sector, also unelected, wields incredible power still, by preaching a gospel of accommodation especially in education today, where the powers that be fight for gradualism and moderation in the privatization of schools. The White Architects of Black Education is still going on under the guise of ‘choice’ and arguments against teacher tenure. Wedding individual choice to the logics of freedom remains rhetoric still powerful, with much the same effect Watkins describes.

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