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Stokes, Olivia Egleston Phelpsfree

(11 January 1847–14 December 1927)
  • Ronald Austin Wells

Stokes, Olivia Egleston Phelps (11 January 1847–14 December 1927), and Caroline Phelps Stokes (04 December 1854–26 April 1909), philanthropists, were born in New York City, the daughters of James Boulter Stokes, a banker, and Caroline Phelps. Both were educated at home in an atmosphere of Christian piety and civic service, although Caroline spent several happy years at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. Their ancestors were of English Puritan stock: Thomas Stokes, who came to America in 1789, was a founder of the American Bible Society and the New York Peace Society. Their maternal grandfather, Anson Greene Phelps, was a successful businessman, entrepreneur, civic leader, and philanthropist who, as a founder of the New York Colonization Society, had helped to establish the Republic of Liberia in West Africa.

The two sisters were similar in personality and outlook. Both were reverent Christians of independent means whose lives were informed by an abiding concern for the underprivileged and oppressed. They believed deeply that the human soul is eternal, that all human beings are the children of God, and that “not one must be lost”—irrespective of color, nationality, or station. In a composition, “The Poor,” written when she was eleven years old, Caroline wrote: “The poor people suffer much… . I think the tenement houses are dreadful places, almost as bad as prisons.” As an adult, she was known for her keen intelligence, decisiveness, and delicate sense of humor and was described as “a woman whose personality combined the spiritual and practical enriched by world-wide travel.” Similarly, Olivia was widely respected for her intelligence, dignity of character, excellent judgment, and “practical philanthropy.”

Following the death of their parents after 1881, Olivia and Caroline traveled widely in the United States, Europe, and Palestine, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In 1896–1897, with their brother James, they took a trip around the world, which included extensive travels in India among the poor and downtrodden. The events of this trip Caroline later chronicled in the form of an anonymously published (by “A.B.”) novel titled Travels of a Lady’s Maid. Olivia also published several volumes of writings, including Pine and Cedar: Bible Verses (1885), Forward in the Better Life (1915), Saturday Nights in Lent (1922), and The Story of Caroline Phelps Stokes (1927).

The Stokes sisters, who never married, are among America’s first women of independent means who, as a result of inheritance, were philanthropists in their own right. Their philanthropic interests included advancing the Christian religion, the cause of women and American minorities (especially American blacks and American Indians), education, and improving housing for the poor. Caroline served on the Improved Dwellings Council in New York. Olivia was the first secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in the United States, and the sisters gave major support to both the YWCA and the YMCA during their lifetimes. Their philanthropies, undertaken both jointly and individually, include such religious benefactions as St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, the open-air pulpit at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, and chapels at Berea College (Kentucky), Tuskegee Institute (Alabama), and Yale-in-China; support for education, such as Woodbridge Hall at Yale University, a gymnasium for Woman’s College in Constantinople, Dorothy Hall at Tuskegee Institute, and public libraries at Ansonia, Connecticut, and Redlands, California; and social causes, such as the Caroline Cottage at the New York Colored Orphans Asylum and a building to house the Peabody Home for Aged and Infirm Women (also in Ansonia). Their special interest in housing led them, with the advice of their nephew, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, to finance the construction of model tenement housing for black families in New York City and to underwrite the work of the City and Suburban Homes Company in New York.

When Caroline died from an infection after a lengthy illness (in Redlands, Calif.), her bequests continued this legacy. Her sympathies for the cause of American blacks and Indians led her to make significant bequests to southern institutions such as Tuskegee, Hampton (endowing scholarships for “Negro and Indian students”), and Calhoun Colored School. Additionally, Caroline left nearly $1 million to endow and establish the Phelps-Stokes Fund, specifying that the income be used “for the creation and improvement of tenement housing in New York City” and “for educational purposes in the education of Negroes both in Africa and the United States, North American Indians and needy and deserving white students.” Olivia had been involved with her sister in the planning of the Fund and gave to it in 1915 two improved model tenements she had built for black families on land adjoining her grandfather’s estate in Manhattan. Olivia left a further bequest to the Fund to “found a school in Liberia similar to the Tuskegee … Institute”—the Booker Washington Agricultural and Industrial Institute, established at Kakata, Liberia, in 1929. She died in Washington, D.C., naming Barnard College as her residuary legatee. She was buried near Caroline at Redlands.


Letters by Olivia and Caroline Phelps Stokes are in the manuscript collections of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, the Phelps-Stokes papers in the Sterling Library at Yale University, and the Archives of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, held by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. Brief biographical sketches may be found in the 1920, 1930, and 1946 Reports of the Phelps-Stokes Fund. A full-length biography of Caroline, The Story of Caroline Phelps Stokes (1927), written by Olivia, is available in typescript in the Phelps-Stokes Fund Archives. For information on the Phelps and Stokes families, see Anna Bartlett Warner, Some Memories of James Stokes and Caroline Phelps Stokes (privately printed, 1892); Oliver S. Phelps and Andrew T. Servin, The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors (1899); Anson Phelps Stokes, Stokes Records (1910); Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, Random Recollections of a Happy Life (typescript, 1932); Anson Phelps Stokes, Reminiscences of Anson Phelps Stokes (privately printed, 1956); and Phyllis B. Dodge, Tales of the Phelps-Dodge Family: A Chronicle of Five Generations (1987). Caroline’s obituary was published in the New York Times, 28 Apr. 1909. Olivia’s appeared in the New York Times, 15 Dec. 1927 and the New York Herald Tribune 15 Dec. 1927; an article on her will was printed in the New York Times, 25 Dec. 1927.