Ella Graham Agnew (18 March 1871–5 February 1958), educator and public administrator, was born at Roseland in Prince Edward County, the ninth of ten children and fifth of six daughters of James Anderson Agnew and Martha Chaffin Scott Agnew. Her mother died in 1872, and her father moved to Burkeville in neighboring Nottoway County, where he practiced medicine and in 1877 married Elizabeth Jane McLean. Agnew grew up and attended school in Burkeville and lived there with her stepmother after her father died in 1879.
Inspired by the independence of her stepmother and older sisters, Agnew enrolled in a stenographic course at Smithdeal Business College in Richmond. In 1892 she moved to Abingdon to take charge of the commercial department at the Stonewall Jackson Institute and to be secretary to the principal. Two years later she moved to New York to work as a secretary in a Long Island publishing firm. Her employer there recommended her to a recruiter seeking a business teacher and secretary for Huguenot Seminary at Paarl, Cape Colony, South Africa. Agnew accepted the job offer and in June 1895 sailed for South Africa. She taught stenography at the seminary for three years and attended classes in other subjects. She became an active leader of the student Christian movement in South Africa and met a number of notable people, among them Cecil John Rhodes and Olive Schreiner. In 1897 Agnew accepted the invitation of Piet Joubert, vice president of the Transvaal, to become the principal of Amajuba Seminary, a boarding school for Boer girls at the village of Wakkerstroom. During her second year at Amajuba the school closed because of the Boer War. Unable to leave until 1900, Agnew spent the interval performing clerical, administrative, and nursing work for the Boers and the American consulate.
After returning to the United States, Agnew taught school near Burkeville and continued her education through correspondence courses and private tutors at Richmond College. For a brief time she worked in New York City as an office manager for the Men's Forward Movement of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Then she began a long, but not continuous affiliation with the Young Women's Christian Association, which included service as the general secretary of chapters in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Toledo, Ohio. While in Ohio she became interested in practical and vocational education for rural girls. When she inquired in November 1909 about vocational education plans in Virginia, Joseph Dupuy Eggleston, the state superintendent of public instruction, invited her to return to Virginia and create a program.
Agnew began work in Nansemond County in February 1910. In May of that year she met Seaman A. Knapp, known as the founder of home demonstration work, who instructed her in starting a girls' tomato-raising club to be financed by the General Education Board in New York and supervised by the United States Department of Agriculture. Agnew became the first woman field service home demonstration agent in the United States, work corresponding to that of the county agricultural extension agents. By the time the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (later Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in Blacksburg took over administration of home demonstration work, Agnew had expanded her program to include poultry husbandry, sewing, and other aspects of home economics.
Agnew was the founding president of the Virginia Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs in 1919, and she was also active in the League of Women Voters in Virginia. In 1920 she rejoined the YWCA as a secretary in the Finance Department of the National Board, located in New York. Traveling to rural YWCAs throughout the country, she gathered information about how to finance these chapters and in 1923 completed instructional materials based on her findings. She then carried out work in Oklahoma and Texas for the National Board. In 1927 Agnew again returned to Virginia as the first woman editor at the Southern Planter, the oldest and one of the most influential southern agricultural periodicals. She edited "The Woman's Department" until 1931.
Agnew became an extremely able administrator as a result of her experiences in the YWCA and in home demonstration work. Her comprehensive knowledge of women's work, both in rural Virginia and in the increasingly industrialized cities, made her the ideal person to become the Virginia director in 1933 of work relief activities for women with the New Deal's Federal Emergency Relief Administration and its mammoth successor, the Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration). She appointed associates from her work in other women's organizations to direct the programs in Virginia, among them Eudora Ramsay Richardson to head the Virginia Writers' Project and Adèle Clark to direct the Virginia Art Project, both of which won national acclaim. Agnew was the senior state director in the country, and her work programs became models for other states. She was one of the few state directors who remained on the job throughout the lives of the FERA and the WPA.
When the WPA was liquidated in 1943, Agnew was seventy-two years old and in frail health after decades of arduous work. She retired to the Home for Needy Confederate Women in Richmond but remained active in civic affairs. Known nationwide as Miss Ella, she was the first woman to receive a certificate of merit from the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College for a career devoted to rural women and girls. In addition, the campus home economics building was named in her honor. In 1952 the College of William and Mary awarded her an honorary doctorate of laws in recognition of her lifelong initiatives to improve the lives of all Virginians and to make more professional and personal choices available to women. She gradually lost her eyesight and in 1957 broke her hip. Ella Graham Agnew died in Richmond on 5 February 1958, and was buried in Sunset Cemetery in Burkeville.
Autobiography in Virginia Iota State Organization of Delta Kappa Gamma Society, Adventures in Teaching: Pioneer Women Educators and Influential Teachers (1963), 113–126; Helen Wolfe Evans, "Ella Graham Agnew: New Occasions, New Choices" (paper for graduate program in liberal studies, Duke University, 1988; copy in Dictionary of Virginia Biography files, Library of Virginia); feature article in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 20 Oct. 1944; Ella Graham Agnew Papers (with correspondence, biographical information, and photographs), Accession 42285, and Virginia Business and Professional Women's Clubs Records (president's file), Accession 44419, both Library of Virginia; correspondence in Joseph Dupuy Eggleston Papers, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.; Virginia Series, Work Projects Administration Papers, Record Group 69, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Ronald L. Heinemann, Depression and New Deal in Virginia: The Enduring Dominion (1983); obituaries in Richmond News Leader, 5 Feb. 1958, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6 Feb. 1958.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Martha H. Swain and Helen Wolfe Evans.
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