Her difficulties, as a southern African American woman attempting to adjust to northern urban life, prompted Hunter to open the Phillis Wheatley Home in 1913, named for the African American slave poet. A strong supporter of Booker T. Washington and his philosophy of industrial education, Hunter housed young black women in the Phillis Wheatley Home and trained them in various professions.
Nurse, social worker. Hunter was born on Woodburn Farm Plantation, near Pendleton, on December 13, 1882, the second of four children of the sharecroppers Edward Harris and Harriet Milner. Briefly educated in a one-room schoolhouse and at a Baptist church school, Hunter moved in with an aunt in 1893 on her father’s death. The change in family circumstances eventually meant that Hunter had to enter the workforce. Initially employed as a domestic with a family in Aiken in exchange for room and board, Hunter was treated so badly that neighbors complained. A family in Anderson proved more kind, and one of the daughters taught Hunter to write her name and to read nursery rhymes. In 1896 two African American Presbyterian missionaries who ran a school in Abbeville arranged for Hunter to work her way through Ferguson Academy (now Ferguson-Williams College). She graduated in 1900. About the same time, at the urging of her mother, she married a man forty years her senior, Edward Hunter. The marriage lasted only fifteen months and produced no children.
With her husband’s blessing, Hunter moved to Charleston to work in the home of Benjamin Rutledge. In this city she encountered Ella Hunt, an African American Ladies Auxiliary worker. Hunt encouraged the younger woman to pursue a career in nursing and helped Hunter gain admittance in 1902 to the Cannon Street Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Charleston. Her experience in the slums of the city imbued Hunter with a powerful desire to help her fellow blacks escape such deplorable conditions. To gain additional nursing skills, Hunter transferred to the Dixie Hospital and Training School at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, in 1904.
With her nursing degree in hand, Hunter moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1905 because the city purportedly offered good employment opportunities for blacks. Reality did not match rumor and Hunter paid her bills through cleaning jobs while continually attempting to secure private duty nursing positions. Her difficulties, as a southern African American woman attempting to adjust to northern urban life, prompted Hunter to open the Phillis Wheatley Home in 1913, named for the African American slave poet. A strong supporter of Booker T. Washington and his philosophy of industrial education, Hunter housed young black women in the Phillis Wheatley Home and trained them in various professions. The home became the largest independent residence facility for African American women in the United States, but it was not without controversy. Hunter’s policy of directing the settlement house’s employment bureau to steer black women into domestic service led to allegations that she was contributing to the second-class status accorded blacks. In her 1940 autobiography A Nickel and a Prayer, Hunter emphasized that she opposed assimilation and preferred a separate but equal existence for whites and blacks. Forced to retire in 1946, Hunter’s final years were marred by mental incapacity. She died in Cleveland on January 19, 1971.
Hunter, Jane Edna. A Nickel and a Prayer. Cleveland: Elli Kani, 1940.
Jones, Adrienne Lash. Jane Edna Hunter: A Case Study of Black Leadership, 1910–1950. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.