These profiles of important and influential Clevelanders are part of a series of “Untold Stories,” presented this week on cleveland.com to commemorate the start of Black History Month.
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Jane Edna Hunter wrote in her autobiography, “A Nickle and a Prayer,” that even as a young girl, she viewed her life in religious terms — “a battle between good and evil — a spiritual quest.”
Virtually unknown outside of her adopted hometown of Cleveland, Jane Edna Harris Hunter was one of the most influential African-American social activists of the early to mid-twentieth century.
Arriving in Cleveland in 1905 from the South, the 23-year-old found it nearly impossible for a young Black woman to find safe, affordable housing and job in her field, even though she was one of only two professional Black nurses in Northeast Ohio at the time.
She was inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise – which called on middle-class Blacks to progress through entrepreneurship. Hunter embraced his call to build Black economic strength and to focus on self-help and schooling as a way to build self-sufficiency and community among young, unmarried African American women, like herself.
Jane had grown up in a tenement house in Pendelton, S.C. Born to sharecropper parents, her father, Edward Harris, was the son of an English plantation overseer and a slave. Her mother, Harriet, had been born on the same day that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, making her a free woman.
When Jane turned 17, her mother forced her into a loveless marriage with 57-year-old Edward Hunter, in the hopes he would help support the family. But the marriage collapsed just 14 months after the wedding, and Jane left. She made her way to Charleston, where she trained as a nurse at Cannon Street Hospital & Training School for Nurses.
It was through church connections that Hunter met the secretary for John D. Rockefeller’s personal physician. Their friendship led to nursing jobs and the social connections “with people of all races, social classes who would discriminate, become benefactors or predators,” which shaped her future.
In 1911, Hunter established the Working Girl’s Home Association at E. 40th and Central Ave., where young women could live safely together for 5-cents a week. Two years later – with $1,500 in the bank — Hunter was able to incorporate and purchase a 23-room boarding house nearby.
By 1917, the need to expand again led to Hunter purchasing a 3-story building, as well as adjacent property, which were used for vocational training, job placement and social activities, as well as a home for Hunter’s newly-established Sutphen School of Music.
She changed the name of the home to the Phillis Wheatly Association (PWA), to honor the Boston slave, who become most notable African-American poet at the time.
By now, Hunter was facing opposition and needed to prove herself to two groups. Some leading African Americans in the city objected to a segregated institution and called the PWA “the Jim Crow hotel for Black girls.” Hunter needed their support but also had to reach out to prominent white civic leaders, whom she needed for financial backing to expand her facilities.
She won over African-American ministers by showing that the PWA provided a wholesome atmosphere where Black women could lift themselves through education and work. However, Hunter secured the financial help she needed only by making concessions to whites. She secured Henry Sherwin’s (Sherwin-Williams) support only after acquiescing to his demand that prominent white women be named to the PWA board.
This battle led to Hunter enrolling in the John Marshall School of Law. She passed the Ohio bar in 1925.
The agency was growing quickly now, and by 1927, the PWA had become the single largest social services agency in Cleveland, and the largest residence for single African American women in the nation. It also served as a model for similar projects across the urban north.
With her newly-found financial support from rich white Clevelanders, Hunter built a 9-story building at 4450 Cedar Ave. which “allowed young girls to maintain their African American heritage and self-respect,” she wrote.
But the PWA was not just growing in Cleveland. Phillis Wheatly homes were springing up around the country. In 1939, the PWA was operating homes in Illinois, Minnesota, Connecticut, North and South Carolina. It had five in Ohio: the original in Cleveland, as well as others in Toledo, Oberlin, Canton and Steubenville.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt sought out Hunter to serve as an advisor on women’s issues throughout the Roosevelt administration.
In addition to her urban efforts, Hunter realized the need for respite from the cityscape and in 1930, purchased land and established Camp Mueller in the Cuyahoga Valley, where PWA members could enjoy nature.
Hunter served as director of the PWA until she retired in 1946, though she did remain active and was a strong voice in the city’s social services community. Once retired, she served as Director of the Empire Savings and Loan — a black-owned bank — and a realty company. She operated several rental units on the East Side of Cleveland. She also founded the Phillis Wheatly Foundation to provide scholarships for young black women. The foundation now annually grants about $100,000 in financial aid.
By 1950, there was a diminished demand for group housing and education for young women, so the PWA made a pivot to concentrate the needs of the surrounding neighborhood: recreation and cultural programming. It established a daycare, and neighborhood outreach. In addition, the PWA converted its housing into apartments for seniors and the disabled.
In the 1960s, Hunter was judged to be mentally incompetent and control of her finances was turned over to her attorney, Charles Hadley.
She lived quietly until her death is 1971. She is buried in Lake View Cemetery.
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