Dangerous Donations

Philanthropy Managed by "Professionals" Has Ill Effects

lf government didn’t build and support schools, almost everyone would be ignorant—right? Believers in liberty often have to argue against that canard. Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902-1930, by historians Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss, shows the remarkable extent to which northern citizens voluntarily supported the education of southern blacks when government support was almost entirely absent. That was the good news.

The book also gives the bad news—how that support was gradually shifted from independent schools for blacks to the promotion of public education for them, which would of course be under the control of the white political establishment. That tragic shift was brought about by “professional” philanthropic managers who pushed a socialistic agenda financed by people who for the most part hated socialism. (That problem is discussed in Martin Morse Wooster’s The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent, which I reviewed in the October 1999 issue.)

There had been increasing financial support for the education of southern blacks in the years between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, coming mainly from church groups in the north. Those efforts were dwarfed in 1902, however, when John D. Rockefeller established the General Education Board (GEB) and gave it $33 million over the next decade. Several other funds with the same mission were established within the next 15 years. The combined efforts of the church groups and the philanthropists led to the founding of numerous private schools for and mostly staffed by blacks. Their success is evidenced by the precipitous decline in illiteracy among southern blacks in the early years of the twentieth century.

But black education was unpopular with white supremacists. The authors write, “White extremists denounced both [Booker T.] Washington and his northern friends, accusing the promoters of black schools of failing to prepare African Americans for their subordinate place in a segregated society.” Educational freedom was as much a threat to the comfortable world of the white racist as freedom of information would be to the world of communist dictators decades later.

The northern church groups were never concerned that black education might upset white racists, but the philanthropic managers took a different view. Anderson and Moss state that “fear of southern white opposition played an important role in the structuring of northern philanthropy for the south. This is especially true of the GEB’s decision in 1911 to endorse “the policy of cooperating with the white people of the South in promoting Negro education, thus making the stimulation of government spending on public education the first priority of its programs.”

One of the villains of the piece is Abraham Flexner, better known for his report that laid the cornerstone for the American Medical Association’s domination of medical education. Flexner, a GEB trustee of great influence and dyed-in-the-wool educational “progressive,” feared competition between private and public schools, contending that “public school development might be retarded or injured if these private schools are made more permanent.” No wonder that by 1915, many blacks had come to view the GEB more as a foe than a friend.

Another villain is Edwin Embree, president of the foundation established by Sears, Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald. Embree wrote scornfully of “little private Negro schools” that could never “meet the problem of education.” Embree believed that could be done only through “the public funds of the states and localities.” He even went so far as to discourage donations to private black schools.

All of this was bad enough, but the “professional” attitude spread to the churches eventually. By 1930 the Protestant missionary societies were actually closing down successful black schools they had previously supported. Anderson and Moss write, “Only the steady reassurance of unexamined assumptions enabled the northern religious philanthropies to [close their schools], certain that simply seeking denominational adherents was an atavistic goal, that private schools were inferior to public institutions, that distant central planners were more likely to create a useful curriculum than local parents, and that long-established loyalties could be readily transferred to new organizations.”

One vignette is especially poignant. In 1930 northern financial support for the Burrell School in Florence, Alabama, was stopped. A white Presbyterian minister who was a member of the local school board expressed his regret: “There is a quality about your school that is lacking in all our schools, white as well as colored. We need that quality, but with the passing of Burrell, it will be gone.”

Depressing but instructive, Dangerous Donations tells us much about the ill effects of philanthropy managed by “professionals” pursuing their own visions, and justifies a healthy dose of skepticism about government education. []

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