The Rosenwald Schools: Schools for African-Americans in the Rural SouthThe Rosenwald Schools were built in the early 20th century as a solution to the scarcity of schools for African-Americans in the rural South at that time. The school-building program was the idea of educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) who approached Julius Rosenwald, (1862-1932), the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The result stimulated the building of over 5,000 schools, vocational workshops, and teachers’ homes in the South. While Southern states discouraged teaching slaves to read, the conclusion of the Civil War brought with it sporadic efforts to educate black children. Missionaries arrived to establish schools, and later in the century some communities permitted African-American children to enroll in public schools.
Then between 1890-1908, states in the Deep South began adopting new state constitutions for the express purpose of taking the vote away from African-Americans. They did so by instituting measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and setting arbitrary voter registration practices. As the blacks were stripped of the right to vote, the whites began reducing opportunities for their children to attend regular public schools. The white communities created separate and lesser schools for blacks, and underfunded those that existed.
The Idea for Beginning the Rosenwald Schools
Booker T. Washington, a well-respected educator, knew this problem had to be solved. Washington had begun the Tuskegee Institute to provide advanced education for African-Americans. Clearly there needed to be a way for them to get their basic education first.
To build Tuskegee, Washington had been successful at getting funds from philanthropists, and he saw this as a possible solution to the problem of the lack of schools for early education. Paul Sachs, a founding partner of Goldman-Sachs, was on the Tuskegee Institute’s board of directors. When he heard what Washington was looking for, he introduced him to Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald, a longtime retailer, was already well-known for his generosity.
Washington made a specific request: He asked Rosenwald to fund six small schools to be built in rural Alabama; they would be supervised by people at Tuskegee. Rosenwald agreed to the request, and the buildings were erected in 1913 and 1914.
Rosenwald and Washington built a strong working relationship. In 1917 Rosenward established the Rosenwald Fund. His commitment was to give to causes for the “good of mankind,” which resulted in money going toward education, and programs for both Jewish people and African-Americans. When asked why he felt so strongly about funding projects for African-Americans, Rosenwald replied: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and stiff suffer.”
Growing the Dream
As Booker T. Washington began to dream a bigger dream, he and Rosenwald worked together to develop a funding concept that is heavily used today; that of matching funds. The men believed that a community needed to contribute to the project in order for it to be valued.
For the Rosenwald schools, the two men requested that each community that needed a school be required to raise a certain portion of the money. The public school system needed to contribute as well. If those requirements were fulfilled, then the Rosenwald Fund provided the remaining amount needed to build the schools.
Families in each town that wanted a school addressed their requirement in different ways. Though they were already paying taxes, and money was tight because many were sharecroppers (meaning that the farm owner took part of the profit from each crop), they took on the challenge. Some families teamed up and planted an extra acre of cotton or raised hogs and chickens specifically for the cause. Other places held fundraisers such as “box parties.” Women would prepare food to be auctioned off.
As designed, this funding method led to citizens and local officials, white and black, all working together for a common goal.
Rosenwald Design Plans
The schools were planned by Tuskegee professors. The first thing taken into account on every school building was consideration of how the building should be situated. Because rural communities often lacked electricity, the schools generally had to rely on daylight, so placement of the building and planning for the windows made all the difference in the length of useful daylight for a classroom.
Booker T. Washington also insisted that each school have space that could be used for town meetings. If the school was large enough there might be one room that was over-sized and could be used. Smaller schools had a partition that could be moved so that two rooms could be combined, permitting a community meeting to be held. By having a common place for people to gather, a strong community culture grew.
Rosenwald Program Concludes
The building program was in effect until 1932 and during that time, Rosenwald schools were built in 883 counties in 15 states, from Maryland to Texas. The final construction tally was 4977 schools, 217 teachers homes, and 163 shop buildings.
By 1932 the schools were educating one-third of all African-American children in Southern schools. The research also showed higher attendance, increased literacy, more years of schooling, and improved test scores.
The school-building program ceased in 1932. The Depression had had its effect on the Fund itself, but more important, Rosenwald and the Fund administrator agreed that the next step needed to be investment in teacher development. For that reason, the Rosenwald Fund shifted to supporting advanced education for teachers, paying for needed supplies, and eventually funding fellowships in various careers for African-Americans who were pursuing their dreams.
While today the schools are now referred to as The Rosenwald Schools, during his time, Rosenwald wouldn’t stand for it. He wasn’t in it for the glory. His gift was about each school; it was not about Julius Rosenwald.
Rosenwald died in 1932. His death was to trigger the beginning of the end of the Fund. He had specified that 25 years after his death, all funds should be dispersed and the Fund should be officially shuttered. By 1948—the target year—the Fund had given away more than $70 million.
Rosenwald School Preservation Conference to be Held
Today the building program is recognized as one of the most important partnerships to advance African-American education in the early 20th century, and there is active interest to save the buildings that exist. The Rosenwald Schools Initiative, a nonprofit group created to preserve as many schools as possible, is now operated under the umbrella of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization has scheduled a national conference to be held in Durham North Carolina to encourage preservation of these buildings. “Sharing the Past, Shaping the Future is scheduled for the autumn of 2015. Anyone interested in attending the program to learn more about saving these buildings should visit the website.
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