Phillis Wheatley Association

Social Services in Action

Cleveland’s Phillis Wheatley Association is known for providing a plethora of social services throughout Cleveland. When Jane Edna Hunter opened the Phillis Wheatley in 1911, it was known as a “home for working girls” regardless of their race or nationality. The seed for a home for young African American women was planted long before 1911. When Jane Edna Hunter was a child in South Carolina, she realized the obstacles facing many young African American women. After college, she determined that she could provide more opportunities in the North for African American women than she could in the South. Hunter eventually was able to make her dream come true when she purchased a home at 2265 East 40th Street. She decided to name the home Phillis Wheatley after an enslaved woman who became the first African American poetess.

The Phillis Wheatley started out with accommodations for fifteen temporary boarders, a kitchen, laundry facilities, and a place to entertain visitors. Hunter quickly learned that there was more community interest for lodging, which led the organization to take over the 72 rooms that comprised the Winona Apartments, thus doubling its ability to accommodate long-term residents and tripling its space for transient residents in light of the Great Migration of 1917. The Phillis Wheatley then took control of the nearby Annex building following a fundraising venture to have more meeting spaces for residents and community members. In 1925, Miss Hunter raised $550,000 to fund the current nine-story Phillis Wheatley building located at 4450 Cedar Avenue. Completed two years later, the new building provided safe and affordable housing in 135 dormitories on its top six floors for young African American women living and working in Cleveland.

Gradually, the Phillis Wheatley Association shifted its role, aiming its uplift efforts at not just young women, but rather the broader African American community. The Phillis Wheatley opened the Josephine Kohler Nursery School in the 1930s, which cared for preschoolers aged three to five, as well as school aged children aged six through ten. The association also opened the Sutphen School of Music, which taught children how to sing and play musical instruments. In addition, Camp Mueller gave urban children the opportunity to enjoy nature, to gain a greater sense of self-worth, to learn to work with others, and most importantly to have fun during two weeklong camp sessions.

In addition to children’s programs, the Phillis Wheatley Association also served adults. The Ford House provided a variety of afternoon and evening classes for men and women when it opened in the 1950s: tailoring, dressmaking, upholstering, catering, and millinery. The Ford House also provided adult education courses that were customized to an individual’s unique educational needs and provided social activities, such as bridge games. The Phillis Wheatley wanted to give its community skills that could help people gain employment and, in many cases, helped people find employment.

By the late 1960s, demand for housing in Cleveland for young African American women was decreasing and more women were leaving the Phillis Wheatley. On October 31, 1970, the top six residence floors of the headquarters building closed, while community activities and services of the first three floors continued. The Phillis Wheatley did not stay closed to housing for long. Instead of accommodating young African American women who moved to Cleveland, the Phillis Wheatley saw that there was an increased demand in housing for the elderly. As a result, the Phillis Wheatley reopened its doors as a subsidized housing facility for the elderly in 1972 with the assistance of a HUD 221-D3 grant. Staying true to the organization’s aim of providing social programs, the elderly residents were provided recreational activities and hot meals. The Phillis Wheatley hosts the Swinging Seniors program, which give seniors a nutritious meal while they play games, such as bingo, cards, or dominos on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. As of 2022, the Phillis Wheatley continues to house those 62 years of age and older who need affordable housing and provides social programs to the Greater Cleveland area.

Video

The Camp Mueller Song Along with the provision of neighborhood services in Cleveland's urban core, the Phillis Wheatley Association established Camp Mueller in the 1930s to provide children a respite from city life. Camp Mueller is situated in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where it continues to operate under PWA management. Source: Center for Public History + Digital Humanities

Audio

A "Small Town" In A Big City Jacqueline Bradshaw, Executive Director of the Phillis Wheatley Association, discusses the surrounding neighborhood Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
A Refuge in a Segregated City Jacqueline Bradshaw discusses the important civic role the Phillis Wheatley Association plays in the local community Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Renovating Emeritus House Jacqueline Bradshaw explains the renovation of Emeritus House Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The PWA's Early History Jacqueline Bradshaw explains the founding of the Phillis Wheatley Association Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The Sutphen School of Music Jacqueline Bradshaw explains the foundation and purpose of the Sutphen School of Music at the Phillis Wheatley Association Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Adapting to Changing Needs Jacqueline Bradshaw recalls how the Phillis Wheatley Association has expanded its role in the community Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Children at Phillis Wheatley, 1951 Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1951
Emeritus House, 1935 Jane Edna Hunter raised over $7 million dollars to build Emeritus House on Cedar Avenue. The building opened as the headquarters of the Phillis Wheatley Association in 1927. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1935
Friendship Hunt, 1960 Throughout its history, the Phillis Wheatley Association has relied on the generosity of donors to achieve its goals. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1960
Jane Edna Hunter, 1946 Jane Edna Hunter serving milk to children in 1946. She was the Association's executive secretary until her retirement in 1948. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1946
Elderly Care, 1936 In addition to providing support for young African-American women, the Phillis Wheatley Association provided care for the elderly in the Central neighborhood. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1936
Patty P. Tommie With Musicians Patty P. Tommie (standing), executive director of The Phillis Wheatley Association in the 1960s and 1970s, looks on as students at the Sutphen School of Music discuss a piece of music with their teacher. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections

Location

4450 Cedar Avenue # 1, Cleveland, OH 44103

Metadata

Sarah White, “Phillis Wheatley Association,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 25, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/19.