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Know Our Heritage: Emeritus House - Jane Edna Hunter

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Jane Edna Hunter was born near Pendleton, South Carolina on December 13, 1882 with the last name of Harris. Her parents were sharecroppers on Woodburn Plantation, owned by Charles Coteworth Pinckney (now a museum administered by the Pendleton Historic Foundation). She graduated with an eighth grade education in 1900 and then worked as a domestic. She was married to Edward Hunter, a man forty years her senior. The marriage lasted for approximately fourteen months, and Mrs. Hunter never married again.

She moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where she began training to be a nurse. She completed her training at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, graduating in 1905. That same year she came to Cleveland and found different nursing jobs.

Seeing how hard life was for many in Cleveland, Mrs. Hunter organized resources and founded the Working Girls Association in 1911. The focus of the association was to provide safe living quarters for poor, young, unmarried African-American women and girls. One year later, Mrs. Hunter changed the name of the organization to the Phillis Wheatley Association.

Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American, the first slave, and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems. Kidnapped from West Africa and transported aboard the slave ship Phillis to Boston in 1761, she was purchased by John Wheatley as a servant for his wife. Mrs. Hunter admired Phillis Wheatley for her courage and determination and thus named the organization after her.

The Phillis Wheatley Association was housed in several buildings around the Central neighborhood. By the mid-1920s, the organization had attracted enough support that it could afford to build the brick building where it continues to be housed still today, in what is now called Emeritus House, located at 4450 Cedar Avenue.  Over time, the goals of the association were expanded to include providing education and marketable skills, in addition to the housing function.

Emeritus House was completed in 1927. The nine-story, steel-framed, brick masonry structure was designed by architects Hubbell and Benes. The first floor consisted of a spacious lobby, reception area, administrative offices and a gymnasium with a stage and balcony. The second floor had a cafeteria with a commercial kitchen, community room, health examination room and a meeting room. Floors three thru nine were residential suite floors. This building had schools for teaching music, cooking and cosmetology, and could house more than six times the number of residents than the building that it replaced.

In 1925, Mrs. Hunter earned a law degree from the Cleveland Law School and was admitted to the Ohio Bar. She wrote an autobiographical book, A Nickel and Prayer, published in 1940. She served as the Phillis Wheatley Association's executive secretary until 1948. Following retirement, she founded the Phillis Wheatley Foundation, a scholarship fund for African American high school graduates. The Jane Edna Hunter Scholarship Fund was established by the foundation in her honor.

Mrs. Hunter was conferred with honorary degrees from Allen University in South Carolina; Central State University in Ohio; Fisk University in Tennessee; and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She founded the Women's Civic League of Cleveland in 1943, was on the board of directors and was a vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and served as vice president and an executive committee member of the National Association of Colored Women.

Following failing heath beginning in the 1950s, Mrs. Hunter died in January 1971 in Cleveland. However, her legacy lives on in Cleveland's Central neighborhood, and beyond.

Beginning in 2004, Robert P. Madison International undertook a restoration and rehabilitation of Emeritus House. As part of this $10 million project, which used historic and low-income tax credits, 42 one-bedroom and 14 studio units were maintained and upgraded within the existing building footprint. The building was made completely ADA accessible and given fully updated mechanical systems while completely conforming to the guidelines of the State Historic Preservation Office. The Emeritus House project received a Preservation Award from the Cleveland Restoration Society and AIA Cleveland in 2008.

Emeritus House is both a Cleveland Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The building continues to be a true community center in the Central neighborhood, meeting the needs of all ages, in addition to fulfilling the traditional housing function of the Phillis Wheatley Association. And it all began with one woman's determination to improve the lives of others.