The Founding of Pi Beta Phi Settlement School
June 28, 1910 was an historic day for the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women, as well as for the Southern Appalachian hamlet of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For it was on that day that Pi Beta Phi alumnae Emma Harper Turner stood before her sisters gathered at the Alumnae Session of the fraternity’s national convention and “outlined a plan for the establishment by Pi Beta Phi of a settlement school in the Appalachian Mountains in honor of the founders and the founding of Pi Beta Phi.” Educated women that they were, the Pi Phi alumnae present that day were doubtless familiar with the Settlement House Movement and its various manifestations, particularly those efforts aimed at assisting the nation’s urban immigrant poor, such as Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in New York, or Jane Addams’s and Ellen Gates Starr’s Hull House in Chicago. They would also have been familiar with the popular travel literature of the day, which told readers of the impoverished lifestyle, lack of formal education, “peculiar” social customs, and clannish violence that were presumed (in some cases correctly) to be hallmarks of life in Southern Appalachia. It should come as no surprise, then, that the alumnae clubs, recognizing an opportunity to engage in a truly worthwhile venture, voted overwhelmingly to support the plan. The die had been cast; Pi Beta Phi would found a settlement school, making it the first Greek letter organization in America to sponsor a national philanthropic venture.
Pi Beta Phi’s project may have set it apart from other Greek letter organizations, but in regard to the larger Southern Appalachian settlement school movement, the fraternity was a relative latecomer. In fact, by 1910, a veritable archipelago of settlement and vocational schools, many of which stressed native handicrafts production as a means of raising local economic standards, stretched from eastern Kentucky to northern Georgia. For example, as early as 1883, Berea College in Berea, Kentucky instituted a program to purchase and market native handicrafts, dubbed the “Fireside Industries.” Seventeen years later, in 1900, the Mountain Workers Conference (an annual meeting of missionaries, settlement school teachers, and others working on behalf of the mountaineers) began meeting in Maryville, Tennessee. The year 1902 alone saw the founding of three vocational schools: the Hindman Settlement School in rural Knott County, Kentucky; the Berry School in the rugged country outside Rome, Georgia; and Allanstand Cottage Industries in Allanstand, North Carolina. And in 1901 (nine years prior to Emma Harper Turner’s proposal), the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs founded the Tallulah Falls Industrial School in the mountains of northeast Georgia.Because of the proliferation of settlement schools in Southern Appalachia, the newly-created Pi Beta Phi Settlement School Committee faced an important decision: where to locate the proposed school. The region known as Southern Appalachia is, after all, quite large--roughly equivalent in size to the British Isles (excluding Ireland). As a means of narrowing its focus, the fraternity sent three emissaries--Turner, Dr. May Lansfield Keller, and Anna F. Pettit--to rural East Tennessee to visit communities that had been “designated by the U. S. Bureau of Education . . . as those most in need of education.” Why the special focus on East Tennessee? Because the state government was particularly receptive to benevolent organizations bent on assisting the state’s education department, regardless of said organizations’ political or religious affiliations. As Dr. Keller would later put it, “the state . . . was very anxious for improved educational conditions and so handicapped by the scarcity of tax payers in certain districts, that there had been a law passed allowing public schools to be run cooperatively with the sectarian schools. ‘Anything for the good of the people,’ was the watchword, everywhere.”