One of the most influential philanthropists of the early 20th century, Edwin Rogers Embree was the scion of generations of abolitionists and integrationists. He ably served the Rockefeller Foundation and when Julius Rosenwald created a foundation for his philanthropic activity, he called on Embree to be its head. The Rosenwald Fund is best known for constructing more than 5,300 schools for rural black communities in the South. In the 1940s, Embree became more personally engaged with race relations in the U.S. He chaired Chicago’s Commission on Race Relations, helped create Roosevelt College, and was co-founder of the American Council on Race Relations. Late in life, Embree was president of the Liberian Foundation, devoted to improving health and education in Africa’s oldest republic.
About the Author
Alfred Perkins served as chief academic officer and taught history at institutions in New Jersey, Tennessee, and Kentucky. His most recent publications have appeared in Catholic Historical Review, Appalachian Heritage, Journal of Negro Education, and Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports.
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Edwin Rogers Embree
The Julius Rosenwald Fund Foundation Philanthropy and American Race Relations
By Alfred Perkins
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2011 Alfred Perkins
All rights reserved.
FRONTIER OUTPOSTS, SINGULAR VILLAGE, PRESTIGIOUS UNIVERSITY
Polk County, Nebraska, in the mid-nineteenth century was not a hospitable place. In winter, the temperature could plunge to 20 degrees below zero. Severe blizzards were frequent, some lasting almost a week. Exposed humans struggled to keep their eyes from freezing shut, and unsheltered animals could suffocate under heavy, driven snow. Summer was no less formidable; temperatures sometimes topped 110 degrees in the shade, if shade could be found. Winds could reach gale force and, even when more moderate, could feel like air from a blast furnace. Cyclones occasionally ripped across the rolling hills. Hordes of grasshoppers were known to descend suddenly, devouring every green thing, even eating the shirt off a man's back. East of the Mississippi, many believed the region unfit for permanent human habitation.
Undeterred by such harsh conditions, white settlers began to filter into the county in the late 1860s. Arriving in covered wagons drawn by oxen, horses, or the occasional mule, they discovered little to attract the eye. Away from the bottomland along creeks and rivers, neither bush nor tree could be seen, only boundless prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction. There were bison and antelope, deer and elk, muskrat and turkey and prairie chicken, enough to sustain the small bands of Pawnee and Cheyenne that inhabited the area. Darkness brought the howling of numerous wolves. Yet to the newcomer, Polk County — all 450 square miles of it — seemed a vast emptiness.
The first census of the county, taken in 1870, revealed a population of ninety settlers. Their hastily constructed dwellings were dugouts — holes gouged into the side of a hill, with poles stretched across the top, the poles then covered with sod. The floor was likely to remain dirt, with the entrance covered only by heavy cloth or a crudely constructed door. Later, as time permitted, this primitive living space might be replaced by a sod house, with walls made of stacked squares of dirt and grass cut from the land. Wood was not easy to come by, and more substantial homes were often years away.
In 1871, the citizens of Polk County chose as the county seat a small settlement on Davis Creek, a tributary of the Blue River. The following year, when the wooden courthouse was completed, the town of Osceola could boast of its first real building. Finished that same year were the first two private residences on the town site, houses soon followed by a hotel, blacksmith shop, general store, and post office. Slow but steady growth over the decade brought the population, including families whose homesteads were miles apart, to 547, enough to justify incorporation in 1881. Central to Osceola's growth was the arrival in 1879 of a branch of the Omaha and Republican Valley Railroad. And, as happened throughout the conquest of the prairie, scarcely was the spur line laid before it was acquired by a larger railroad. Thus, this section of track, soon extended beyond Osceola, was purchased in 1882 by the Union Pacific Railroad. That acquisition brought to the town, as Union Pacific's telegrapher and depot agent, a thirty-eight-year-old Union Army veteran, William Norris Embree.
By the time Embree, his wife Laura, and their six children arrived, Osceola had begun to take on conventional aspects of town life. Three church buildings — all one-room frame structures — had been erected. Residences continued to go up. Destruction of the wooden courthouse by fire led to its replacement by a brick building, and to the purchase through private contributions of a horse-drawn fire engine. At the new courthouse in late 1882, Susan B. Anthony spoke on behalf of women's suffrage. The following spring, the town hosted a three-ring circus, complete with a giant ox "larger than an elephant" and a "unicorn — with three separate horns and three distinct eyes." For the second time, plans to open a saloon in town were turned down by the county commission. The establishment of a school led in 1888 to the first high school graduating class — four boys, two girls. Ten street lamps were planned for placement around the town square. Yet for all this progress, Osceola was still a hard-living, close-to-the-earth frontier town, much like the four earlier hamlets where Union Pacific had deposited the Embree family in the previous ten years.
Only a few weeks after their arrival in Osceola, Laura Embree discovered she was pregnant. This was not entirely happy news, for there were already three girls and three boys, ranging in age from fourteen to three. The three eldest — all girls — had been born when the family was well settled in Laura's hometown, the village of Berea, Kentucky. The two youngest children had been born in the only other place the family had lived for any extended period, White Cloud, Kansas, where they had spent seven happy years. But now, they were in a totally new location and had scarcely had time to set up housekeeping. Moreover, Laura was already past her thirty-eighth birthday, a time when most mothers considered their families complete. Her uneasiness was undoubtedly intensified when the news came that, in the spring, before the baby was due, William would be transferred again. The family's new location was to be Bryan, Wyoming, an even more remote place, lacking either doctor or nurse.
William, accompanied by two of the children, was forced to go on ahead, leaving Laura and the rest of their brood in Osceola to await the new arrival. When her time came, Laura was fortunate that the town doctor lived right across the road from the family's rented house. The delivery was uncomplicated, and the newborn, weighing a healthy ten pounds, arrived safely on July 31, 1883. This fourth son was given the name Edwin Rogers Embree. Three weeks after the birth, mother and children left Osceola for tiny Bryan.
The Wyoming town was to be no more than another way station in the family's constant migration. As the Union Pacific extended its tracks, connecting frontier settlements to the main line, it moved its experienced station agents to the new locations, frequently and not always with much notice. By 1884, William Embree had been assigned to Ogden, Utah. Not much later, he was transferred to Cokeville, Wyoming, a town that even in the 2000 census numbered only 506 residents. Before the end of the 1880s, the family found itself in Kemmerer, another frontier outpost in Wyoming.
Such frequent moves provided little opportunity for the family to establish roots or make many acquaintances. During their brief stay at Bryan, where they lived in the Union Pacific depot, they were befriended by cowboys from a nearby ranch, and the children came to know several Chinese railroad workers. At Cokeville, the family was housed in a log cabin on a small ranch, close to a creek where two branches of the Oregon Trail came together. There, the children found occasional diversion when wagon trains heading west from Missouri moved through, and occasional irritation when forced to drive the travelers' half-starved horses out of their pasture. Their closest neighbors, and the boys' principal playmates, were Blackfoot Indians. Frequent visitors to the home were adult Indians — some local, some itinerant — looking to trade, to sell horses, or perhaps to cadge a meal.
With few neighbors in these sparse settlements, the family inevitably was focused inward. Much of the family activity centered on young Edwin. His teenage sisters doted on him, not only feeding, bathing, and caring for him, but curling his hair, sewing his clothes, dressing him up in costumes they made. As the youngest child, he received the constant attention and warm affection that commonly lead to a deep sense of security and well-being.
Young Edwin's life was far from sheltered, however, and early on he displayed the curiosity and boldness that would characterize his adult years. On one occasion, when only three years old, "Winnie" was left in the care of two older brothers while his mother napped. The brothers were not particularly attentive, and Edwin, seeing a horse tethered to a post beside the house, found a chair to stand on and mounted proudly to the saddle. At that point, a sudden burst of wind blew dust and trash in the animal's face, causing it to rear, throw its would-be rider to the ground, lunge against the rope until the hitching post broke, and gallop away, trailing part of the post behind. Awakened by the commotion, Laura hurried out just in time to see the horse rapidly disappearing, dragging what she thought was her youngest child. She ran frantically after the runaway, until a passing Blackfoot managed to catch and return it. Around the corner of the house, unhurt and unfrightened, young Edwin seemed to enjoy the excitement.
From the perspective of Edwin's brothers, life was idyllic. The eldest worked horses and raced against Indian ponies. The Native Americans themselves — with their ceremonies and horses and hunting weapons and brightly decorated moccasins — were endlessly fascinating. School was, at best, intermittent. The nighttime howling of wolves and barking of coyotes they took for granted. And they could look forward to taking over their eldest sister's job of shooting jackrabbits for the family table. But their sojourn on the western prairie soon came to an end.
By 1888, William Embree's health had begun to fail. Captured during the Civil War, he had spent months in a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. There, he had contracted tuberculosis, a disease that stayed with him the rest of his life. Thus, when only in his mid-forties, he had to resign from the Union Pacific Railroad. Left with no income, and the father too ill to work, the family was forced to break up. Leaving behind two of the daughters, who were married but still short of their twentieth birthdays, and the eldest son, the family moved to William Embree's sister's home outside Philadelphia. There, William died in the spring of 1891.
Her husband's death left Laura, who suffered from malaria, with no established home of her own. Wyoming was to attain statehood that year, but life in that frontier setting held no attraction for a single woman with minor children, the youngest ofwhom was only six years old. Lacking any real alternative, she decided to return with her three youngest to her parental home in Berea, Kentucky, while her unmarried daughter remained in Pennsylvania to study for missionary work. His mother's decision was of enormous consequence for young Edwin, for he would spend his most formative years in his grandparents' home in a racially integrated town. There, growing up without a father, he came under the powerful influence of his grandfather, John Gregg Fee.
* * *
John G. Fee had been born in 1816 into a slave-owning family in Bracken County, Kentucky. Bracken County bordered the Ohio River, on the other side of which was the free state of Ohio. The proximity of slaveholding territory to a free state meant that pro-slavery sentiment and abolitionist ideas were heatedly discussed as young Fee was growing up. Indeed, his own family was not of one mind, for his mother came from an anti-slavery Quaker background. In his mid-twenties, Fee, having decided to devote his life to the Christian ministry, enrolled at Cincinnati's Lane Seminary, a hotbed of abolitionist fervor but a few years earlier. Though that fervor had cooled somewhat by the time Fee arrived in 1842, anti-slavery sentiment was still present in Lane's faculty, notably in the views of the school's president, Lyman Beecher, and his son-in-law, the biblical scholar Calvin Stowe. A decade before Harriet Beecher Stowe would publish Uncle Tom's Cabin, Fee took classes from both her father and her husband. With classmates, he engaged in fervent discussions of the slavery question, centering on its relation to Christian doctrine. Then, following a nightlong vigil, when he prayed, "Lord, if needs be, make me an abolitionist," he was converted to the anti-slavery cause. Months later, his earnest efforts to persuade his conservative father to an abolitionist view met with failure, and the senior Fee refused to continue paying his son's tuition at Lane. Forced to leave the seminary after only a year and a half, young Fee was subsequently disowned by his father and disinherited. During those months of personal turmoil, he married Matilda Hamilton, daughter of a Bracken County family of abolitionist leanings.
Bitter estrangement from his parent was but the first of many hardships Fee would endure as a consequence of his views. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church, he preached and lectured against slavery in a number of churches in Kentucky and southern Ohio during the late 1840s and early 1850s. His insistence that slavery violated Jesus' injunction to "love one's neighbor as oneself" led first to his censure by the presbytery that ordained him, then to separation from his denomination altogether. He became the pastor of a small church in northern Kentucky which forbade membership to slaveholders. The congregation was racially integrated and, highly unusual for the time, advocated full equality for blacks. Infuriated by the radical views of the congregation and its pastor, local vigilantes in 1851 burned its building to the ground.
Increasingly convinced that his mission in life was to work for the elimination of slavery and its consequences, Fee published a series of articles and an "Anti-Slavery Manual." He urged immediate emancipation and equal rights for blacks, basing his argument on the U.S. Constitution and the New Testament. His unstinting expression of such controversial views in a southern state brought him to the attention of northern abolitionists, notably the Tappan brothers of New York, and the financial support of the American Missionary Association. It also won the patronage of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a prominent Kentucky landowner and politician.
In the mid-1850s, Clay provided Fee with extensive acreage, rolling bluegrass land within sight of the Appalachian foothills, on which to build a church and establish an anti-slavery community. As the community of Berea began to grow, a school was opened under the direction of a scholarly graduate of Oberlin College and Seminary, J. A. R. Rogers, and his teenage Quaker bride, Elizabeth Embree Rogers. From the outset, the school was devoted to "coeducation" of the races, and that commitment was extended to the college established a few years later. The presence of such a community and educational institution, together with Fee's continued preaching and circulation of anti-slavery tracts, quickly aroused the ire of slaveholders in the area.
By 1858, as tension over the slavery issue escalated across the country, the Berea community was subjected to constant harassment by proslavery forces. Racially integrated classes were broken up. Hostile mobs interrupted Fee's sermons and otherwise undertook to intimidate the citizenry. Fee was assaulted by ruffians almost two dozen times, and was twice left for dead. To the end of his life, he carried a large bump on his head where an irate slaveholder had broken a club over it. In spite of these attacks and repeated threats against his life, Fee never resisted physically, but remonstrated with his enemies and, even when being carried away for a beating, prayed for his tormentors. Nor did he cease to preach his anti-slavery doctrine.
The climax of the community's difficulty came late in 1859, following a sermon Fee had preached in Henry Ward Beecher's church in Brooklyn, soon after John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry. Speaking to the largest congregation in the country, Fee, always a pacifist, called for abolitionists to be as consecrated as Brown, but to use spiritual force, not physical force or weapons, to achieve their ends. Misinterpreting Fee's words as a defense of Brown's methods, Berea's enemies assembled a posse of over 700 men, who rode on the town and demanded that its citizens leave the state within a matter of days. Under this threat of imminent violence, just before Christmas a dozen families, almost a hundred men, women, and children, fled across the Ohio River to Cincinnati.
Excerpted from Edwin Rogers Embree by Alfred Perkins. Copyright © 2011 Alfred Perkins. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Frontier Outposts, Singular Village, Prestigious University 1
2 Learning Philanthropy: From Apprentice to Master Craftsman 29
3 Someone to Keep Julius Rosenwald Straight 63
4 Southern Initiatives, Asset Collapse, Transformation 95
5 Character to Cope with Disagreement 133
6 Toward "Full Democracy" 182
7 On the National Stage 213
8 Celebrations, Proclamations, Tributes 249
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A clear, engaging, thoughtful account of the life of one of the most influential leaders of American foundations.