Person

Jane Edna Hunter

Black and white portrait of an African-American woman with short hair.
Jane Edna Hunter, 1941.

CSU-Michael Schwartz Library

Quick Facts

Jane Edna Hunter rose from poverty in the South to have a nationally recognized career in social work in Cleveland. In the early 1900s, she founded the Phillis Wheatley Association (PWA) to provide young Black women with safe housing, job training, and recreation. The PWA opened Camp Mueller in Cuyahoga Valley in the 1930s. 

Servant to Nurse 

Hunter grew up in a tenant house on the Woodburn Plantation in Pendleton, South Carolina. (Today, a replica of her family cabin is part of the historic site’s tour.) Her father, Edward Harris, was a sharecropper born into slavery. Hunter noted that his Anglo-Saxon appearance took after her grandfather, the son of an English plantation overseer. Her mother, Harriet Milliner Harris, narrowly escaped slavery by being born on the day Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 

After her father died when she was 10 years old, Jane had to work various jobs as a live-in servant. At 17, she married 57-year-old Edward Hunter, a wealthy man who her mother hoped would support the family. She soon left Edward to pursue nursing training, first at the Cannon Street Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Charleston and then to Hampton Institute in Virginia. In 1905, the young nurse followed friends to Cleveland. Unknowingly, the first door they knocked on was a brothel. As a black woman in this new city, Hunter found it extremely difficult to find safe, affordable housing, a job in her field, and places for wholesome recreation. At the time, Hunter was one of only two Black professional nurses in Cleveland. Her fortunes turned when, through a church connection, she met the office secretary to John D. Rockefeller’s doctor. This led to nursing jobs and social connections that lifted Hunter out of poverty.  

These early experiences—with people from all walks of life, with race and class discrimination, with benefactors, and with predatory men—shaped who she became. 

Starting a Shelter for Black Women 

Depressed after her mother’s death in 1910, Hunter dreamed of establishing what would become the Working Girl’s Home Association. She founded this club with seven girlfriends in September 1911. Dues were a nickel per week. When they incorporated in March 1913, the name changed to the Phillis Wheatley Association (PWA) in honor of the famous poet. The Board of Trustees was unusual in having both black and white members. The PWA began with a 23-room boarding house for about a dozen clients and $1,500 in the bank. It soon upgraded to an 88-room apartment with an activities building next door. The PWA built its current nine-story facility on Cedar Avenue in 1927 with substantial donations from wealthy white supporters such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr

In its early years, the PWA provided single Black women arriving from the South with lodging, training in domestic skills, job placement, and recreational opportunities. As Hunter developed a reputation for producing good employees, she secured grants from local businesses. In addition to her executive duties, Hunter practiced the self-improvement she preached. She took extension classes at Western Reserve University and completed four years at Baldwin-Wallace Law School. She passed the Ohio bar examination in 1925.  

During the 1930s, the PWA started the Sutphen School of Music in Cleveland and Camp Mueller in Cuyahoga Valley. Over the years, PWA services changed to meet community needs, later adding a daycare and apartments for seniors and people with disabilities. 

Turning Doubters into Influential Friends  

Hunter faced opposition from the start. In proposing the PWA, she needed to prove herself to two major groups: middle-class Black and upper-class white civic leaders in Cleveland. Established Black “club women” advocated for integration. They felt that poor southern migrants such as Hunter were bringing segregationist attitudes to northern cities. The PWA was called a “Jim Crow YWCA.” Hunter won over these critics by showing that the YWCA trustees would not allow more than a few Black women to join their activities. Hunter said, “Now it became my duty to harmonize these interests and unite these two dreams—the purposes and desires of my people and the policies of the white friends whose material support we sought.” Inspired by Booker T. Washington, Hunter felt she was building self-sufficiency and community for the women she served. Being able to effectively communicate with both audiences helped Hunter achieve her goals. Black critics called Hunter an accommodationists like her hero. 

Over time, Hunter became a national advocate for her cause. One way she spread her ideas was through the National Association of Colored Women. In 1930, their board created a Phillis Wheatley Department with Hunter as the chairman. By 1939, there were ten Phillis Wheatley Houses in Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Ohio. The latter were in Cleveland, Toledo, Oberlin, Canton, and Steubenville. 

Among the famous people in Hunter’s network were businessman Henry A. Sherwin, writer Charles W. Chestnutt, and poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Carter G. Woodson, the “father of African American history” and Black History Month, profiled her in a 25-part series in 1927. Dr. Robert R. Moton, the second president of the Tuskegee Institute, was the keynote speaker at the dedication of new PWA building in 1928. W.E.B. DuBois asked her to contribute to The Encyclopedia of the Negro. Hunter even made two trips to the White House with Mary McLeod Bethune to discuss women’s issues with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

Writing an Autobiography 

In middle-age Hunter wrote A Nickel and a Prayer, her 1940 autobiography. It describes her “spiritual quest” from Southern poverty to a prestigious career in the North helping other women safely navigate the Great Migration.  

Hunter delicately walked a tightrope familiar to many ambitious women—balancing modesty and self-promotion. She wrote, “I have told the simple story of one who felt herself called upon to undertake and perform an apparently neglected, but greatly needed task. There have been many inquiries as to the origin of the Phillis Wheatley Association, how it started, its work, its growth, and its future. . . . If the recital of my humble efforts to be of service to Negro girls and women encourages in another a like spirit . . . no more fitting reward can come to me.” 

Hunter made references to her publisher, Elli Kani, but scholars believe she likely self-published her book and hired Parthenon Press to be the printer. This wasn’t unusual for the time. On the copyright application, she lists Elli Kani (meaning “the house of faith” in an African tribal language) with the PWA address. 

Hunter viewed her life’s work in religious terms as a battle between good and evil. She saw herself facing and wrestling “a dreadful monster”—organized vice—and the corrupt politics which supported it. “The service it imposed upon the wretched of my race was hard, ‘and its wages were death.’” She knew first-hand how vulnerable young Black women were when they arrived in a new city without money or worldly experience. Chapter 11 is named for the unsavory Albert “Starlight” Boyd, a Republican businessman who she considered the “Great Mogul” of organized vice in Cleveland. Hunter dramatically describes standing at the deathbed of his first wife, Osie, who he had lured into prostitution and then divorced. His Starlight Café on Canal Road was a political hub, tavern, barbershop, bath facility, and pool room. 

As society has changed, Hunter’s conservative values and emphasis on young women’s reputations have been criticized. Hazel Carby of Yale University called out Hunter for vigilantly monitoring her residents’ personal lives. In a 1992 article, Carby pointed out the contradictions in Hunter presenting herself as a capable, independent matriarch whose hapless “daughters” require constant surveillance. Also problematic is when Hunter described a white “lady of the house” as a sort of a “foster mother” to her young black maid. Was Hunter a realist who helped poor young women escape common pitfalls and support themselves in a racist, sexist society? Or a controlling enforcer of the status quo? A bit of both? 

There are four versions of Hunter’s book: the 1940 original, a revised 1941 second printing, a posthumous 1984 reprinted of the original, and a 2011 annotated edition. 

Beyond the PWA 

In 1947 Hunter reached the mandatory retirement age for her pension and reluctantly resigned as general secretary of the PWA. Her new focus became the development of the Phillis Wheatley Foundation (PWF). Its chapters around the country raised money for college scholarships and sponsored women’s programs and services. Hunter traveled nationally giving motivational and political speeches, and she wrote newspaper columns. Before she died in 1971, she willed the bulk of her assets to the PWF scholarship fund. 

Hunter was one of the first inductees into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame (1978-2011).  

Learn More 

In 2008-09, Professor Rhondda Robinson Thomas launched the Jane Edna Hunter Project with two classes of literature students at Clemson University in South Carolina. This has helped revive scholarly interest in Hunter’s legacy. In 2011, Thomas published an edited and annotated edition of A Nickel and a Prayer which informed this profile. 

Jane Edna Hunter’s archives are in Cleveland. They are divided between the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Phillis Wheatley Association. 

Last updated: September 10, 2020