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Agnes Ernst Meyer (1887–1970) noted journalist, philanthropist, and activist, was born in New York City. She spent her childhood years in Pelham Heights, New York, where she lived an idyllic life surrounded by the beauty and wonders of nature. Her father, encouraged her appreciation of music and art and instilled within her the thrill of politics.

Her mother’s devotion to her Lutheran faith played an equally important role in the development of Meyer’s character. A belief in an individual’s relationship with God, a love of civil and religious freedom, and independent thought fostered Meyer’s spiritual and secular life. The Lutheran tradition of separation of Church and State enhanced Meyer’s commitment to both institutions. She came to believe that because each stood alone, each stood stronger. This commitment endured throughout her lifetime and bolstered her strong commitment to religious choice, equality, and freedom.

While attending school in Pelhamville, young Meyer developed a fierce sense of justice and fair play. Her innate compassion for victims of prejudice was fueled by her friendship with an older black boy who came to her and her brother’s rescue during a fight. His quiet, reasonable demeanor calmed many potential childhood altercations and convinced the children to return to play. This boy was unable to join in the games he restored, which made Meyer realize that the color of one’s skin was the source for lifelong discrimination and could not be changed by appeals for justice and equality.

Tomboyish behavior did little to delay Meyer’s progression through the available eight grades. Permitted to learn at her own pace, she passed the New York Regents Examinations for high school at the age of eleven. Her family could not afford private schools so when she and her brother reached the age to attend high school, the family moved to New York City where there were outstanding public schools and colleges.

High marks in high school earned Meyer a scholarship to Barnard College. Though often frustrated and bored with her undergraduate classes and the professors responsible for teaching, inspiration returned in her senior year when John Dewey, a Columbia University professor, taught a class at Barnard. For the first time in her college years, a professor spoke to the parts of her character that others had not touched. He spoke to her love of reasoning through facts; he spoke to the richness of human associations.

Upon her graduation in 1907, she announced to her family that she would become a newspaper reporter. Though her parents strongly objected, she followed her own interests. At the time, the New York Morning Sun, home to many famous journalists of the day, had never hired a woman. When the editor, informed her of this fact, Meyer replied that this was why she wanted to work at that newspaper. Once hired, she was cautioned not to expect any assignments. Consequently, completely on her own, she supported herself writing stories on topics that ranged from charitable organizations to politics and snake charmers.

After a year of struggling, Meyer resolved to continue her scholarly studies at Sorbonne, where she immersed herself in art, music, theatre, architecture, and history. Upon her return to the United States in 1910, she married multimillionaire Eugene Meyer. Even as she bore and raised five children, she scoffed at the traditional roles of women and was determined to maintain her life as an individual. She spent much of the next four decades traveling and writing on education, social problems, and political issues for the Washington Post, which was owned by her husband.

She contributed financially to the New School for Social Research and studied psychology there. She participated in the struggle to bring modern French art to New Yorkers and served on the Board of Trustees for Barnard from 1932 to 1955. A member of the President’s Commission on Higher Education during World War II, Meyer became an advocate for educational reform. As the nation began its vast rearmament program and with reports of five million men rejected for military service because of physical and educational handicaps, she campaigned for higher levels of education in the armed services as well as in the nation’s schools.

She traveled throughout the United States and Britain to investigate conditions on the home fronts. Her travels during the war radicalized her politics. Failure of the government to meet the basic needs of its citizens, veterans’ issues, migrant workers, overcrowded schools, and the plight of African Americans galvanized her writing and her politics. She lobbied Congress for an end to racial discrimination through integration and increased social security benefits, and advocated for the creation of a federal department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

In 1944, she and her husband established the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. Through grants, the foundation continues to invest in nonprofit entrepreneurs and community-based organizations that work to meet social needs and that strengthen communities in the Washington, DC area. Her mission to improve education continues through the foundation’s annual “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” award that honors a Washington, DC public school teacher each spring. In 1958, the couple created The Agnes and Eugene Meyer Fund, a permanent fund supporting the work of Barnard professors.

Contributed by Sandra H. Dunn, The University of Texas at Austin

References
Barnard News Center. 2004. Agnes Ernst Meyer,’07, pathbreaking journalist, advocate for education, and philanthropist. New York: Barnard College.

Meyer, A. E. 1943. America’s home front. Washington, DC: The Washington Post.

Meyer, A. E. 1944. Journey through chaos. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Meyer, A. E. 1953. Out of these roots: The autobiography of an American woman. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. 2006. Agnes Ernst Meyer (1887–1970). Washington, DC: The George Washington University.

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