Borrowing Capacity to Limit Reform: The Role of Public-Private Collaboration and the Reorganization of Southern Education in the Progressive Era

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:50 PM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Joan Malczewski, New York University
Bura Hilbun, the State Agent for Negro Education in Mississippi and part of the State Department of Education, reported in 1917 that the Carroll County schools were unsatisfactory and the “county superintendent would do more for the negroes were it not for the fear of his losing his hold on the people in a political way.”  Hilbun’s report was made to the General Education Board, a philanthropic fund that promoted education reform in the South and provided the salary for Hilbun’s work.  The report illustrates the complicated and local nature of reform efforts, as well as the prominent role that a private entity, the General Education Board, played within Mississippi’s political system.  Indeed, Hilbun’s report is one of hundreds submitted to northern philanthropists between 1909 and 1940 by a range of education field workers who were located within state and local political systems with salary provided, at least in part, through funding from northern philanthropies.  The result was an array of public-private partnerships that philanthropists developed with state and local governments, which fundamentally altered the public education system in the South during the Progressive Era.  

This paper explores the role of these partnerships in southern education reform.  One result was an increase in organizational capacity and greater centralization of schooling.  Many explicit policies of collaboration, like an industrial training curriculum that was implemented in spite of rural black opposition, illustrate the potentially detrimental effects of centralization. However, centralization also integrated more local institutions into the public sphere, providing more formal venues for black agency and opportunities to reconstruct the public sphere over the longer term.  As administrative capacity developed, so did the dynamic relationships between interest groups and institutions, resulting in unintended outcomes that contributed in significant ways to political development in the South.