Jennie Burkes: reforming our county schools

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2020

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Born in Asheville, North Carolina on July 11, 1888, Jennie Burkes was the daughter of John D Burkes, an employee of the Southern Railway. At the age of six, Jennie’s family moved across the Smoky Mountains to Cumberland Gap. Soon she was attending The Harrow School, a private school run by Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) at the turn of the century.

In 1907, Burkes took the teachers exam, scoring high enough for LMU to offer a scholarship to the University.

She declined and, from 1907 to 1912, used her teaching talents within the Claiborne school system, first in Tiprell, then Arthur and eventually in Tazewell.

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Her first classroom had over 50 students spanning all the grades – 1/3 of which were older than she.

Burkes convinced the parents to pay for two extra months of school. Six of those first students went on to college at LMU and at the University of Tennessee.

She received $50 per month during her second year of teaching, which lasted some four months in length.

Moving to another school during her third year, she moved again at the beginning of her fourth school year, this time, to Tazewell for a total of nine months – five months as an elementary school principal and four as an English and history teacher at Claiborne County High School.

Burkes then transferred during her fifth and sixth years to Cumberland Gap. During each summer, she studied to complete her college degree. After a vacation to Washington DC, with degree in hand, she began her career at LMU and UT.

In 1913 she made a decision that every student, both past and present, should be thankful for. Burkes took the State examination for the County Superintendent’s Certificate. She not only passed the exam but scored high enough to be awarded a Lifetime Certificate. During the following Quarterly Court, the School Board and Court voted to hire her as Superintendent of Schools.

Burkes wasted no time or effort bettering the quality of education the schools offered and totally changing the mindset of the County Government. She was from a Democratic family. Claiborne was strongly Republican. But, her zeal and attitude to provide better educational opportunities for the children of Claiborne County swept those Party lines away.

Claiborne County Government in the early 1900’s was not much different than today. The main topic was the continuing development of the road system. The majority of the tax dollars during this time went to roads. Many Quarterly Court Members felt that education was an option.

Less than 20 years before, the State had to take over the county’s funding and appropriate monies for the school system, requiring mandatory attendance for the youth of the county. A school building program began, and several new schools were constructed, bringing Claiborne County out of the Dark Ages of ignorance.

The primary source of funding the school in 1909 was the Poll Tax. A minuscule Property Tax was also collected, but it still did not meet the educational needs of the students. Jennie Burkes was determined to change this as soon as possible.

In 1913, the 21 combined School Board and Quarterly Court members made a bold move electing Burkes as Superintendent of Schools. Bold because women were not allowed to vote at this time. It would be six more years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Burkes scored perfect marks on the State Superintendent Exam, achieving a Lifetime Certificate – the first for Claiborne County. Her philosophy was straightforward and simple – create a better school system.

The battle she faced was a daunting one, but she soon won over the Board of Education with a common sense approach. When she began, school funding was the bare minimum. The school year was three and a half months in length. Teachers were poorly paid by the County and poorly qualified. The school buildings had not been properly maintained and teaching materials were nonexistent.

During her first year as superintendent of schools, Burkes advocated and won a longer school year with the slogan, “better schools and a longer school term.”

It worked. The County raised the Public School Levy from 35 cents to 60 cents per pupil. This allowed schools to have a 5 month school year instead of three and a half months.

Next, she began a mandatory 3 week county institute for teacher training. New administrators were selected based upon education and not on the common spoils system merits. Burkes had some County leaders worried, wondering what she would do next.

When the federal government created the Smith-Lever Act to assist farmers by employing county agriculture agents, Burkes advocated for educational opportunities in agriculture and home economics.

The reforms and change of attitudes throughout the County were favorably viewed from others from across the entire state and throughout east Tennessee. The U.S. Department of Education began to take note as well as the National Education Association (NEA).

In 1916, during the NEA National Convention in Detroit, Burkes’ writing and articles on rural education, education in the mountain south and other triumphs were read my hundreds. Those individuals used her techniques to expand the young rural southern minds to new heights that brought a backwards society out of the last clutches of Reconstruction and the War Between the States.

Not long after her story, “Winning of Mountaineers” was published in the Journal of Education, the State of Alabama came calling upon Burkes offering her a position as Assistant State Commissioner of Schools in Alabama. She readily took this job in 1917 and was immediately placed over the rural school improvement program.

Soon, the ominous war clouds that had been covering Europe since 1914 came into the hearts and lives of America. With the beginning of the US involvement in World War 1, Jennie became Assistant Director for the Southeast in the U.S. School Garden Army.

The program encourages school students to plant and grow gardens, thereby easing wartime demands for food. Remember, she was doing all this during the onset of the Spanish Influenza, traveling and staying away from home almost continuously.

Soon, war clouds gave way to the ray of peace and she became Director of the Junior Red Cross for the Southern United States. But, her true calling was education – teaching and helping the rural mountaineer students in the south receive the education they deserved.

Burkes returned to Tennessee in 1920 to take a position of principal in the Knox County School System. She soon answered the call of her alma mater, LMU, by becoming an ambassador for the school in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

On January 30, 1922, Burkes did something not even humorist Will Rogers had done. She spoke to the masses by radio, at KDKA in Pittsburg (the first Commercial Radio Station in the U.S.).

On that Monday in 1922, Burkes told her stories on “Educating the Southern Mountaineer” not only to the people listening to KDKA in Pittsburg, but KYW, in Chicago, WJZ in Newark, NJ and WBZ in Springfield, MA. She spoke to nearly a half -million people on how she took Claiborne County Schools from the dark ages to the modern day.

In 1922, women in the United States had legally been allowed to vote for twenty months. Women in political office were more a novelty placed in rigged elections to gain the new female ‘voting block.’

In April 1922, a group of bipartisan politicians approached Burkes about running for the US Congressional Seat for the 1st District of Tennessee. This seat was and had been republican for a long while. Burkes was the antithesis of this group.

While hundreds of other women ran for various local, state and national offices, Burkes was not one to be lead around. She declined the group’s offer, allowing political chicanery and fraud to fester in Claiborne County for another 20 years.

In 1923, Burkes became the wife of Wiley L Morgan, Managing Editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel. In 1929, she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease. She was treated at the Mayo Clinic and survived until 1941, when she passed away. She is interned in the Greenwood Cemetery in Knoxville.

Although Burkes-Morgan had no children of her own, the number of children she gave the light of education to is beyond imagination. Many generations later, no accolades have been forthcoming from county officials. Burkes opened the minds of those first 50 students. Her work continues to spark the imaginations of generations of students within our county and beyond.

We owe her a debt of gratitude for her dedication to education.