The Jeanes Supervisors were a group of African American teachers who worked in southern rural schools and communities in the United States between 1908 and 1968. Also known as Jeanes Teachers, Supervising Industrial Teachers, or Jeanes Workers, they derived their name from Philadelphia philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes, who provided funding for black education in the South. Approximately 2,300 Jeanes Supervisors worked in 16 southern states, including Alabama. Almost all of the roughly 295 people who eventually taught in each of Alabama's 67 counties were women.
In 1907, philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes created an endowment fund of $1 million. The fund was intended to assist community, county, and rural schools for African Americans in the southern United States. Jeanes named Booker T. Washington and Hollis Burke Frissell to head up the fund and directed them to appoint a board of trustees to manage it. The fund was called the Negro Rural School Fund, or Jeanes Fund.
Other northern philanthropists, such as John D. Rockefeller, also created funds for southern education during this period,
but the Jeanes Fund was the first to target rural African American children in the South exclusively. Alabama Jeanes Supervisors'
salaries were at first paid primarily by the Jeanes Fund. This limited the number of Alabama Jeanes supervisors, as the Jeanes
Fund was designed to pay only a portion of the supervisors' salaries. As word of the Jeanes Supervisors' work spread in Alabama,
county superintendents recommended that their boards of education pay a portion of the salaries, often amounting to half.
By 1914, 19 Alabama counties paid a portion. In 1929, the Alabama State Department of Education began to support the Jeanes
Supervisors and funded fully the salaries of 12 supervisors. By 1930, Alabama Jeanes Supervisors received funds from philanthropic
sources, including the Jeanes Fund ($9,290), county school funds ($15,333), and state funds ($20,180).
Profile of a Jeanes Supervisor
In 1914, a Jeanes Supervisor was typically a classroom teacher chosen by the county superintendent for her leadership qualities and her skill in teaching the industrial arts. The Alabama State Agent for Negro Schools sometimes made recommendations to the county superintendents. According to one Alabama agent, "a satisfactory personality" was a primary consideration. There was no special curriculum designed to train Jeanes Supervisors. Alabama state agent James L. Sibley, appointed in 1912, and Alabama agents who came later, guided the Jeanes Supervisors to Alabama State Department of Education workshops at Tuskegee Institute and other black colleges. Some Jeanes Supervisors attended summer schools at black colleges or predominantly white colleges outside the south. As late as 1931, only 5 percent of Alabama Jeanes Supervisors had college degrees; by 1941, 76 percent had degrees. Often Jeanes Supervisors were better educated than their superintendents.
These individuals often found their greatest administrative support from the State Agents for Negro Schools, which were established
beginning in 1910. By 1919, most southern states had state agents within their state departments of education. Funded by the
Rockefeller-supported General Education Board, the state agents were white males and generally progressive in their racial
views. The agents were directly responsible to the State Superintendent of Education, though the General Education Board monitored
their work. The agents were widely regarded by Jeanes Supervisors as selfless promoters of the Jeanes Supervisors' work. They
recruited supervisors, arranged preservice and inservice education, helped secure local and state funds for the supervisors'
work, and visited the supervisors in their counties. Jeanes Supervisors had no specific job descriptions. A Jeanes Supervisors
motto, of unknown origin, was: "Doing the Next Needed Thing." Jeanes Supervisors helped families make arrangements to bury
loved ones, built pit toilets, and organized health department vaccinations for school children. They also taught women in
the community how to plant gardens and can vegetables, raised funds for a new school, and helped teachers develop lesson plans.
Typically, Jeanes Supervisors emphasized community self help. Instruction in both industrial and academic school subjects highlighted the use of inexpensive, easily obtained objects both at home and in teaching at school, and maintained the good will and support of the community. Industrial education, or manual training, particularly skills such as bricklaying, sewing, and food preparation, was generally emphasized in black education during this time rather than academic training. Jeanes Supervisors submitted monthly reports to their superintendents and to the state agent for Negro education, and held annual exhibits of industrial work by community parents and students. In 1916, 27 Jeanes Supervisors from 23 Alabama counties set up an exhibit at the annual meeting of the State Teachers' Association in Birmingham. The exhibit consisted of more than a thousand items, such as hats, baskets, and rugs, created in 23 Alabama counties by African American school children. All the articles were made from Alabama materials: pine needles, shuck work, white oak, willow, and palmetto.
By the 1930s, industrial education gradually gave way to a more academic emphasis by Jeanes Supervisors. In this period, African
American educators began to push for standards for their schools that were equal to those for white schools. When the Southern
Association for Colleges and Schools refused to include black schools in their accreditation process, African Americans in
1934 formed their own organization—the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes.
In the early years, Jeanes Supervisors traveled long distances over poor roads to visit their assigned schools, often staying overnight with community families. Frequently, they were exposed to epidemics and diseases such as tuberculosis, and many of the teachers they supervised were ignorant of teaching methods beyond the memorization and reciting methods they recalled from their own inadequate schooling. Many schools were dilapidated and unheated, and in some counties classes were held in a church or lodge hall. In 1924, when Alabama's population was 60 percent white and 40 percent black, the state spent $13 million to educate white children but only $1.5 million on black education. In some school systems, superintendents assigned Jeanes Supervisors to oversee all black schools in the district—duties normally associated with an assistant school superintendent—though without the usual salary increase or professional status given white professionals. Tessie Oliver Nixon, a Jeanes Supervisor from 1934 to 1959 in Bullock County, recalled that the county superintendent would use a day-long program for the first day of school that she had created for training white teachers, without acknowledging her contribution.
Jeanes Supervisors were major fundraisers for one of the most important school-building projects ever undertaken in the United
States—the Rosenwald School Building Program. Between 1912 and 1932, the Rosenwald Fund provided $4.3 million in matching grants to southern rural communities to build
4,977 Rosenwald schools for black students in 15 states, 389 of them in Alabama. African Americans more than matched Rosenwald's
gift, contributing $4.7 million, much of it raised through the creative and dedicated efforts of Jeanes Supervisors. In Alabama,
blacks contributed $452,968, whites $137,746, tax funds contributed $445,526, and the Rosenwald Fund $248,526.
School integration in the 1960s effectively ended the Jeanes Supervisors' memorable role in southern rural education for blacks. But during its life, the Jeanes program improved education for black Alabama children. Supervisors raised money to extend the school term and increase teachers' salaries, erect and equip new school buildings, and repair and equip old ones. They solicited money and land donations for African American schools from both the white and black communities. They provided inservice education to improve their teachers' professional skills, and they worked to help their counties' schools become accredited. They also gave strength and hope to black communities that often lacked both. Two Alabama schools are named after Jeanes Supervisors: Mary W. Burroughs School in Mobile County and Oliver Junior High School (after Tessie Nixon Oliver) in Bullock County.
Dale, Lily Farley Ross. "The Jeanes Supervisors in Alabama 1909-1963." Ph.D. diss., Auburn University, 1998.
Fairclough, Adam. A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
Jones, Lance G. E. The Jeanes Teacher in the United States, 1908-1933. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.
Williams, Mildred M. The Jeanes Story: A Chapter in the History of American Education, 1908-1968. Atlanta: Southern Education Foundation, 1979.
Published July 2, 2009
Last updated January 18, 2012