George Foster Peabody (1852–1938)
UNCG’s PEABODY PARK was established in 1901 with money donated by the financier and philanthropist George Foster Peabody. The establishment of Peabody Park was part of an extraordinary life of educational philanthropy, particularly in the American South, the influence of which continues to this day in many institutions across the country and around the world.
A native of Georgia, Peabody was especially generous to the University of Georgia. The internationally known George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting and journalism are given each year by the University of Georgia’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Peabody also established that university’s School of Forestry.
Long concerned with the education of African-Americans, Peabody served from 1884 to 1930 as a trustee of Hampton University, one of Virginia’s historically black universities. He established there in the Hampton University Library the Peabody Collection of rare materials on African-American History, now one of the largest such collections in the country.
An estate that Peabody owned at Warm Springs, Georgia, played host to Franklin Roosevelt soon after he contracted polio, and Roosevelt was so impressed with the therapeutic value of the resort’s springs that he bought the site from Peabody and founded there the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.
The following sketch of Peabody’s life appeared in Who Was Who in America, Volume I: 1897–1942 (Chicago, 1942):
PEABODY, George Foster, banker; b. Columbus, Ga., July 27, 1852; s. George H. and Elvira (Canfield) P.; ed. pvt. schs., Columbus, Ga.; hon. A.M., Harvard, 1903; LL.D., Washington and Lee, 1903, U. of Ga. 1906; m. Mrs. Katrina (Nichols) Trask, Feb. 5, 1921 (died 1922). In banking business many yrs., now retired. Treas. Dem. Nat. Com., 1904–05; dep. chmn. govt. dir. Federal Reserve Bank, New York, 1914–21. Chmn. State of N.Y. Reservation Commn. at Saratoga Springs, 1910–15 and 1930; trustee Am. Ch. Inst. for Negroes, Hampton Normal and Agrl. Inst., Penn Normal and Industrial Sch., Fort Valley High and Industrial Sch., Colo. College, Skidmore Coll., Ga. Warm Springs Health Foundation. Home: Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Died Mar. 4, 1938.
A lengthier biographical sketch of Peabody by Louise Ware, which appeared in the Dictionary of American Biography (23: 520–521, 1958), provides additional information about his life:
PEABODY, GEORGE FOSTER (July 27, 1852–Mar. 4, 1938), banker, philanthropist, was born in Columbus, Ga., the first of four children of George Henry and Elvira (Canfield) Peabody. Both parents were native New Englanders of colonial ancestry. The elder Peabody, who came from a line of merchants, bankers, and professional men, had moved from Connecticut to Columbus, Ga., where he ran a prosperous general store. After attending private school in Columbus, young Peabody spent a few months at Deer Hill Institute, Danbury, Conn. The devastation of the Civil War, however, had impoverished his family; in 1866 they moved to Brooklyn, N. Y., and young Peabody went to work in a Brooklyn wholesale dry goods firm.
He advanced rapidly in the mercantile business. In evenings he read extensively at the library of the Brooklyn Y.M.C.A.—his “alma mater,” as he later called it. He also took part in the activities of the Reformed Church on Brooklyn Heights. There he met and became a good friend of a young investment banker, Spencer Trask; and on May 2, 1881, Peabody became a partner in the new firm of Spencer Trask & Company. During the 1880’s and 1890’s this investment house took a leading part in financing electric lighting corporations, sugar beet and other industrial enterprises, and railroad construction in the western United States and Mexico. Peabody himself handled most of the firm’s railroad investments, working in close association with William J. Palmer. He also became a director in numerous corporations.
In 1906 Peabody retired from business to devote his full time to philanthropy and public service. He had long been interested in humanitarian and social causes. He read Henry George’s Progress and Poverty soon after its publication and became an advocate of the single tax. He supported free trade and woman suffrage and was active for many years in the peace movement. He advocated government ownership of railroads. In the field of philanthropy, he lent substantial support to the educational work of the Episcopal Church, which he had joined in 1880. Deeply interested in education, and especially southern education, he was an active member of the board of trustees of the American Church Institute for Negroes, Penn Normal Industrial and Agricultural School in South Carolina, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, and the University of Georgia, among other institutions, and he served as treasurer of three of the leading philanthropic enterprises in this field, formed during the early 1900’s: the Southern Education Board, organized by Robert C. Ogden, the General Education Board, sponsored by John D. Rockefeller, and the Negro Rural School Fund, established by Anna T. Jeanes. In recognition of his services to education, Peabody was awarded honorary degrees by Harvard University (1903), Washington and Lee (1903), and the University of Georgia (1906).
Early in life Peabody developed a deep interest in Democratic party politics. In the early 1880’s, when his close friend Edward Morse Shepard organized the Young Men’s Democratic Club of Brooklyn, Peabody helped to draw up its constitution and was active in its work. He took a vigorous part in the 1892 presidential campaign on behalf of Grover Cleveland. A believer in a stable currency, he supported the Gold Democrats against William Jennings Bryan in 1896, but as a member of the executive committee of the Indianapolis Monetary Convention (1897) and in later correspondence he worked for moderate monetary reform. In 1904 he served as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Although he declined to run for political office and declined President Wilson’s offer of a place on the Federal Trade Commission, Peabody was an unofficial counselor to many in government office. From 1914 to 1922 he served on the board of directors of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
Long interested in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he had often visited the estate of his partner Spencer Trask, Peabody agreed to succeed him (1910) as chairman of the state commission set up to purchase and conserve the famous spa. Peabody himself acquired, in 1923, the property at Warm Springs, Ga., near his boyhood home, which he and Franklin D. Roosevelt later developed as a health center. It was at Peabody’s suggestion that Roosevelt first visited the springs in 1924.
In appearance Peabody was tall and erect; in later years his hair was white, and he wore a heavy mustache and pointed beard. His dignified and courtly manner distinguished him in any group. He maintained a mansion in Brooklyn, where he entertained lavishly. He also purchased a summer home, “Abenia,” at Lake George; here he came to live most of the year. He was frequently a guest at “Yaddo,” the Saratoga estate of Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina (Nichols) Trask. From Abenia and Yaddo there radiated a wide circle of influence, many persons from the literary world, church, business, and government coming as guests to enjoy the gracious hospitality. In 1920, eleven years after Trask’s tragic death in a railroad accident, Peabody married Katrina Trask, and they lived at Yaddo until her death in 1922. Thereafter Yaddo became a great retreat for artists. Peabody continued to live on the estate. In 1926 he adopted a daughter, Mrs. Marjorie P. Waite, a young woman whom he had come to know in connection with his civic and humanitarian activities and who aided him in carrying them forward.
Although he had suffered from a cardiac condition for some years, Peabody remained active to the end of his life. He died at his winter home in Warm Springs. After funeral services at Jacksonville, Fla., his ashes were removed to Yaddo and interred near his wife’s grave.
[Louise Ware, George Foster Peabody (1951); E. J. Koop, Hist. of Spencer Trask and Company (1941); C. W. Dabney, Universal Education in the South (2 vols., 1936); A. D. Wright and E. E. Redcay, The Negro Rural School Fund, Inc.—Anna T. Jeanes Foundation, 1907–1933 (1933); Marjorie P. Waite, Yaddo, Yesterday and Today (1933) and Seeing Saratoga (1935); N. Y. Times, Mar. 5, 1938; interviews with members of the family and friends. The George Foster Peabody Papers are in the Lib. of Cong.; for description see the Library’s Quart. Jour., VII (1949–50), 28. There is Peabody correspondence in the papers of Newton D. Baker and of Ray Stannard Baker in the Lib. of Cong. and in the Edwin A. Alderman Papers in the Univ. of Va. Lib.]
© RJO 1995–2016