Celebrating Cleveland’s Jane Edna Harris
The daughter of a sharecropper, Jane Edna Harris was born at Woodburn Farm near Pendleton, SC. She acquired her last name by a brief marriage. Hunter graduated in 1905 as a trained nurse from Hampton Institute, VA, and came to Cleveland, serving in various nursing jobs.
She attended Marshall Law School (later Cleveland Marshall Law School of CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY) and passed the Ohio bar examination. Hunter organized the Working Girls Association in 1911 to provide safe living quarters for unmarried African American WOMEN and girls who needed a place of residence.
Later that year, the name changed to the Phillis Wheatley Association. The association was modeled by 9 similar institutions throughout the United States.
Hunter served as the association's executive secretary until 1948. Following retirement, she founded the Phillis Wheatley Foundation, a scholarship fund for African American high school graduates. The foundation later established the Jane Edna Hunter Scholarship Fund in her honor. Hunter held honorary degrees from Fisk University, Allen University in Columbia, SC, and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. She founded the Women's Civic League of Cleveland (1943), belonged to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE (NAACP), and served as vice-president and executive committee member of the National Association of Colored Women.
Jane Edna Hunter (nee Harris) was born on December 13, 1882 at Woodburn Farm near Pendleton, South Carolina to Harriet Millner, a free-born daughter of freed slaves, and Edward Harris, the son of a slave woman and a plantation overseer. Edward Harris died when Jane was ten years old, and her mother urged her into a loveless marriage with Edward Hunter, a man 40 years older than she was. The arrangement collapsed fourteen months after the wedding, and Jane Edna Hunter never married again.
Hunter graduated in 1905 as a trained nurse from Hampton Institute, VA, and migrated to Cleveland Ohio, arriving in 1905 as a 23-year-old single African American woman. When she arrived in Cleveland she could not find decent housing or professional work because of segregation laws and practices. Her first housing was a place where prostitutes lived. With the help of other women and $1,500, she first opened the Working Girls Home Association, a boarding home for 10 women at East 40th, north of Central Avenue. The purpose of this voluntary association was to build a safe residence for the homeless, unprotected, newly arriving African American women and workingwomen like her. Later that year, a 2-story building at 2265 East 40th Street was purchased and the name changed to the Phillis Wheatley Association, in honor of the late 18th-century Boston slave considered the first African American poet. The number of residents soon strained the capacity of the 23-room house. By 1917 the association purchased a 3-story building to house 75 at the northwest corner of East 40th and Central. An adjoining building, purchased in 1919, housed social and educational activities and the Stephen School of Music. The home provided a wholesome atmosphere and vocational training, often teaching service skills.
Hunter led the Association until her retirement in 1946. The PWA was the first institution designed to meet the needs of African American migrants and became, by 1927, the single largest private African American social service agency in Cleveland. The Cleveland PWA also became the largest residence for single African American women in the nation and served as the model for similar projects throughout the urban North. A member of the Cleveland Neighborhood Centers Association, through the years the Phillis Wheatley Association has functioned as a multi-service community center, serving the needs of children, youth, families, and the elderly. The association provided neighborhood social services and operated a 56-unit apartment building for seniors and disabled persons. It also managed the Sutphen School of Music, which provided music classes, and Camp, Mueller.
Hunter graduated from the Ferguson Academy and attended the Marshall Law School, passing the Ohio State bar exam in 1925. She was selected as an official in the National Association for Colored Women (NACW) and in 1930; Hunter became Director of the Phyllis Wheatley Department of the NACW. The purpose of the Department was to build a national network of Phyllis Wheatley Associations to house self-supporting, self-respecting African American women and girls and provide a meeting place for clubwomen. These facilities were to be a “lighthouse of service” in their communities. (The Woman’s National Magazine, 1937). They epitomized the self-help and social debt response to those less fortunate.
Hunter wrote an autobiography, “A Nickel and a Prayer,” in 1940. Following her retirement, she founded the Phillis Wheatley Foundation, a scholarship fund for African American high school graduates. The foundation later established the Jane Edna Hunter Scholarship Fund in her honor. Hunter held honorary degrees from Fisk University, Allen University in Columbia, SC, and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Jane Edna Hunter died in Cleveland, Ohio on January 19, 1971.