Shocked by reports and letters about the South’s Civil War devastation, George Peabody (1795-1869) founded the $2 million Peabody Education Fund (PEF, 1867-69) to aid public education in eleven former Confederate states and West Virginia. Born in Massachusetts but a merchant in the South, he became an international banker in London (1837-69) and a philanthropist.
The war-devastated South lacked the means or will to establish public schools. First PEF general agent Barnas Sears, distinguished New England educator, used limited resources as a lever to help achieve tax-supported public schools. PEF-aided schools had to meet ten months a year and have at least one teacher per fifty pupils. PEF grants required that local citizens more than match PEF funds and that laws for tax-supported public schools be enacted.
Sears urged a state normal school (for teacher training) in Nashville as a model for the South. But state normal school legislation continually failed in the Tennessee legislature over the next six years. Rather than lose Nashville as a normal school site, Sears said that if University of Nashville trustees gave land and buildings for a normal school, the PEF would contribute $6,000 annually. The Tennessee legislature amended the University of Nashville’s charter, and the new State Normal School, financed by PEF’s annual grant of $6,000, opened December 1, 1875, and was renamed Peabody Normal College (1889-1909).
Disappointed when the legislature refused to subsidize Peabody Normal College in 1877 and 1879, Sears considered moving Peabody Normal College to Georgia. This threat prompted Nashville citizens in April 1880 to guarantee $6,000 annually. From 1881 to 1905 the general assembly’s appropriations for Peabody Normal College totaled $429,000. In contrast, the Peabody Education Fund trustees gave $555,730 from 1875 to 1909.
In its first thirty years (1868 through 1897) the PEF gave the eleven former Confederate states and West Virginia a total of $2,478,000 to advance public schools, teacher institutes, and normal schools. Tennessee received about 9 percent of this total, second highest after Virginia. Additionally, the PEF enriched Tennessee with Peabody Normal College (and successor institutions). Besides its regular tuition-paying students, Peabody Normal College enrolled 3,645 higher qualified teacher candidates through PEF-financed Peabody Scholarships (1877-1904), which brought the college and Tennessee an additional $398,690.88. Educators trained at Peabody Normal College became educational leaders throughout the South and gave Peabody in Tennessee a national reputation.
Allowed to disband after thirty years, the PEF gave $1.5 million to transform Peabody Normal College into George Peabody College for Teachers. Former Governor James D. Porter (1828-1912), who had been Peabody Normal College’s third president (1901-9), helped raise PEF-required matching funds from Nashville, Davidson County, and other Tennessee sources. The new George Peabody College for Teachers was built opposite Vanderbilt University. In 1979 it became Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.
Amid post-Civil War chaos, the PEF financially encouraged state efforts in advancing public schools. By creating in Nashville a model professional teachers college, it helped produce educational leaders who became college and university presidents, deans, scholars, educational writers, and master teachers for Tennessee, the South, and the nation.