Blaker, Eliza Ann
By Sally Harvey-Koelpin
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
Eliza Ann Blaker (1854-1926) was a social progressive and a pioneering educator who lobbied effectively for educational and social causes in Indianapolis, Indiana, for forty-four years. Possessing strong leadership skills, Blaker devoted her time and energy to the education of the city's poor families during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As an influential woman educator who helped shape public education in Indiana, she combined the roles of philanthropist, social reformer, and educator to successfully organize and maintain a free kindergarten program. She also established a teacher training institution that later became the elementary department of Butler University's School of Education. Through her work, Blaker touched the lives of many Indiana residents. Mrs. John Kern, a woman closely associated with Eliza, wrote after her death: "To the immediate community Dr. Blaker's work has been incalculable. She has been even more to Indianapolis than Jane Addams has been to Chicago" (Eliza A. Blaker Club).
Eliza Ann Cooper, the eldest of three children, was born 5 March 1854 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Early in life she developed qualities described by Paul Schervish and colleagues as a "philanthropic identity . . . in which care for others [became] a vocation" (1993, 12). Eliza was influenced by a politically-active Quaker tradition and her father's social activism in causes such as the abolition of slavery. She developed "politics [that] focused on the empowerment of the oppressed" (Ibid., 35). Her childhood was often turbulent. Due to her family's constant financial struggles and the premature death of her father, Eliza was forced to assume many responsibilities at a young age. This early socialization left her extremely sensitive to human suffering and created in her a "mature sense of responsibility and community" (Ibid., 32).
Fortunate to live in a time when it was becoming more acceptable for women to receive a higher education, Eliza's mother insisted she stay in school despite the family's financial struggles. Eliza attended Girls Normal School in Philadelphia. She worked as a full-time teacher in the Philadelphia Public Schools and studied at night to finish her education. The teaching experience in this urban environment heightened her sensitivities to social issues as she witnessed firsthand the realities of city life. After graduation in 1874, Eliza continued teaching in order to put her brother through medical school.
Eliza's first introduction to the early childhood educational ideas developed by Friedrich Froebel came at the Philadelphia 1876 Centennial Exposition, where she observed a demonstration kindergarten. As the developer of the kindergarten concept, Froebel believed all children were born with their optimal ability to learn and that they needed love and appropriate stimulation in order to develop optimally. Eliza was convinced of the social reform potential of the kindergarten concept, so she enrolled in the Centennial Kindergarten Training School under the tutelage of Ruth Burritt. Burritt had been trained under Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, the woman responsible for opening the first kindergarten in the United States. In 1880, Eliza graduated. Many years later, the International Kindergarten Union's Committee of Nineteen's report on pioneers in education stated, "among the graduates of the [Centennial Training School] were many who have had an active part in the progress of the kindergarten movement"; the report cited Blaker among the most well-known of these (International Kindergarten 1924, 142).
In 1882, Eliza arrived in Indianapolis to organize a kindergarten in connection with a prestigious private school, the Hadley Roberts Academy. Newly married, she moved her entire family to Indianapolis. At the time of her arrival, the city was in the midst of the tremendous change typical of a growing urban area; it has been described as "a metropolis of some 20 square miles with 35,000 homes, businesses and factories, 175 churches, 500 grocery stores" (Leary 1971, 136). The expanding student population generated a growing need for new school buildings and teachers.
In the late nineteenth century, low-income urban neighborhoods stood in stark contrast to the mansions-with their "handsome drives, statuary, and elegant fountains"-that were being built in the center of the city (Ibid., 118). In response to an increased concern for social problems, "dozens of women's clubs sprang up in the city" (Ibid., 121). This demonstrated that "members of the feminine sex were beginning to take an interest and play a more active role in community affairs" (Thornbrough 1956, 15).
Soon after her arrival in 1882, the members of the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Society offered Blaker the opportunity to supervise the organization of a free kindergarten program. The society sponsored the program in response to growing urban poverty. Preferring to work with the poor, she immediately resigned from the Hadley Roberts Academy. The ladies of the society assisted Eliza's efforts to organize the kindergartens by providing finances, furnishings, and clothing.
As a social reformer, Blaker envisioned a system of kindergartens that would serve poor families. She "believed in an equal education for all; therefore, race, color, or creed could not bar anyone from admittance to her school. No one was ever turned away" (Roberts 1982, 1). As the superintendent, she led the way in introducing new practices
by integrating the kindergarten with family life. She believed the "most important work of both teacher and parent was character training" and stated that the purpose of the kindergarten was "the education and moral training of the children of the poor" (Thornbrough 1956, iv, 18).
To this end, Blaker's philosophy of education combined training in habits and morals which promoted the development of an American identity (or "Americanization"). Consequently, the educational goals of the kindergarten were "the harmonious growth of both the body and soul; the present well being and happiness of the child, his preparation for home and school life and for future citizenship" (Ibid., 71). As a humanist, she "was sharply critical of traditional ideas concerning child training and discipline" (Ibid., 72). For Blaker, the classroom was a democracy where consideration and cooperation were the guiding ideals.
The kindergartens' programs were based primarily on Froebel's educational ideas and methods, including extensive use of his gifts and occupations , an ordered sequence of educational toys that were ".aimed at producing a creative 'whole person'" (Weston 1998, 19). However, Eliza "was not a blind adherent of any one system" and tailored programs to fit the needs of the students (Thornbrough 1956, 61). She was always interested in new theories but was not "an educational faddist who tried every educational innovation which came along" (Ibid.). Practice was more important to Eliza than theory.
The kindergartens thrived under Blaker's leadership, which included an appointment as secretary-treasurer of the kindergarten department of the National Education Association in 1892. By 1907, the society's silver anniversary newsletter claimed the existence of thirty-three free kindergartens in different areas of Indianapolis. During the twenty-five years since the society had been established, the kindergartens had enrolled 49,252 students. In testimony to her leadership skills, the newsletter proclaimed, "in every district where the Free Kindergartens
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