Caroline Phelps Stokes was born in 1854 in New York City to a family of privilege. Caroline’s maternal ancestors, The Phelps, included a long line of merchants and manufacturers, known for their philanthropy as well as their financial success. Caroline’s paternal ancestors, the Stokes, were religious leaders in the Episcopal Church.
When she was a little girl, Caroline’s feet hardly ever touched the ground. Her doting siblings carried her, letting her down only to play among the chestnut and fruit trees in their back yard. She had dogs and a lamb named Daisy; a monkey; a parrot; stray birds and cats; and, once, a lost alligator that she carried in her arms to Central Park and let go. Her father called her Frangipangi after a sweet-smelling flower, and her mother pointed to the nature around them as evidence of God’s love.
Caroline was not, however, ignorant about the world outside her family’s garden. As she grew up, she listened to her Grandfather Stokes talk at breakfast about news and politics. Then, while she and her siblings sewed, her mother read aloud to them: non-fiction and histories in the morning, literature and fiction in the afternoon—except on Missionary Mondays, when they read missionaries’ accounts from around the world. In the evenings the family ate dinner together and discussed religion, especially how to be a good Christian. Caroline came to believe that society had many problems, but that good work and service could go a long way in overcoming them.
Two of the problems that particularly touched Caroline were housing and education. In the mid-1800s, when Caroline was coming of age, millions of immigrants and newly freed slaves searched for jobs, training, and places to live. In New York City, they crammed into dangerous and dirty tenements; in the countryside, many people—especially women—couldn’t read, write, or earn an income.
“The poor people suffer much whether in winter or summer,” Caroline wrote in an essay when she was 11-years-old. “In summer they are almost melted with heat, there are so many families crowded into one house. In winter it is very difficult to keep from freezing.”
Her observation about the poor remained with her. For the rest of her life, Caroline used her wealth and privilege to help others, especially to achieve basic dignity and comfort. After graduating from Miss Porter’s boarding school in Connecticut, Caroline returned to New York, where she managed a home for elderly women and taught sewing classes for poor working girls. When she could, she traveled with her sisters. They went to India, France, Egypt, Italy, Israel—and almost everywhere in between—to understand how the poor lived and what they needed. Behind them, they left hospitals, schools, and human rights movements.
In the United States Caroline often-toured African American schools in the south, and she moved for a season to Asheville, North Carolina, to forge connections with rural and Native American communities there. At the time, it was very unusual to see a white woman in Victorian dress marching around the countryside and talking with local people. In this way, Caroline was self-confident, curious, and was ahead of her time.
She was also an early and leading proponent of African American and Native American education. Like Booker T. Washington, Caroline believed the best route to racial harmony was minorities' vocational and technical education. She donated money to African American and Native American schools, chapels, tenement houses, and even a university in Liberia, Africa where some African Americans had re-settled. She also invested in girls’ education. In keeping with the Christian virtue of humility, Caroline usually made her gifts in someone else’s name.
When she was in her early 50s, Caroline and her sister Olivia packed a car with silver, servants, linens, and portraits and moved to Redlands, California. Caroline needed to get away from cities, she said—all the “sorrow, sin, and distress” that she couldn’t relieve exhausted her. She was also ill, having been diagnosed with a weak heart.
For a few final years, Caroline wrote about her travels and her faith in God, drove around the orange groves and rose beds singing hymns with her nurses, and did what she could to help others. On April 26, 1909, while bent over a trunk sorting clothes to donate to charity, she had an asthma attack and fell unconscious. Her sister Olivia would send the news to the rest of the family: “At about six o’clock the breathing ceased, and she peacefully passed into the other home.”
Caroline Phelps Stokes left behind an $800,000 endowment for a perpetual philanthropic fund. It was dedicated to two of Caroline’s deepest concerns: improving housing and providing education for Africans and African Americans, Native Americans, and needy whites.
Officially incorporated in 1911, Phelps Stokes continues to this day.
-Adapted from Carrie’s Will: A Family Narrative of the Phelps-Stokes Fund by Belinda H.Y. Chiu