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. Its range of accommodations and services explains why it became a perennial listing in the Negro Motorists' Green Book. 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.