Edwin Rogers Embree was an early voice championing the Rockefeller Foundation's (RF) expansion into the humanities and social sciences.
Born in Osceola, Nebraska in 1883, Embree moved with his family to the racially integrated town of Berea, Kentucky in 1891. His formative childhood years in Berea and his family's abolitionist history shaped his lifelong commitment to racial equality.
Embree received his B.A. from Yale University in 1906. He spent a year in New York City as a reporter for the New York Sun before returning to New Haven in 1907. He spent the following decade working at Yale first as assistant editor of the Yale Alumni Weekly and then in several university administrative positions, while also earning an M.A. degree from the university in 1914. Embree's administrative work at Yale brought him to the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, and in 1917 he was appointed secretary of the RF under president George E. Vincent.
When Embree joined the RF, the Foundation’s efforts were focused primarily on medicine and public health projects. Embree advocated for expanding their work into the humanities and social sciences. In a rousing 1924 address to RF Trustees and the General Education Board, he asked, “Of what good is it to keep people alive and healthy if their lives are not to be touched increasingly with something of beauty?” His speech received a lukewarm response from the Trustees, however. Embree instead channeled his efforts into directing the newly formed Division of Studies (DS), which was created in 1924 to administer all Foundation work in areas outside of medicine and public health. When the DS was eliminated in 1927, Embree went on to serve briefly as the RF's vice president. His vision for a robust humanities and social sciences program would not be fully realized until after his departure from the RF in 1928. That same year, the Foundation reorganized and established a Division of Humanities and a Division of Social Sciences.
Embree left the RF in 1928 to become president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which supported educational, public health, and welfare programs for African Americans. When the Fund closed after expending all of its funds in 1948, Embree went on to serve as president of the Liberian and Africa Foundations, collectively focused on improving health, education, and welfare in Africa.
In addition to his long philanthropic career, Embree was a prolific author. He wrote numerous articles, essays, and several books including Brown America: The Story of a New Race (1931), Brown Americans: The Story of a Tenth of the Nation (1943), and Thirteen Against the Odds (1944).
Edwin Rogers Embree died in New York City on February 21, 1950, at the age of 66. His officer's diaries are digitized and can be accessed through the Rockefeller Archive Center's (RAC) online collections. A collection of his papers, including correspondence, a family journal, and some of Embree’s articles and speeches can be accessed at the RAC.