Cairo Rosenwald School

Cairo, Tennessee

Established in 1912 by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the Rosenwald rural school building program worked to improve African American education throughout the South in the early twentieth century. The project began in Alabama when Washington used money donated to Tuskegee University from Rosenwald to construct six schools for African Americans. From here, the project expanded and in 1917 Rosenwald established the Julius Rosenwald Fund to provide consistent financial support for the school program. By 1928, Rosenwald schools served one third of the South’s African American schoolchildren and teachers. Schools continued to be built until 1932, when Julius Rosenwald died and funding for the program discontinued. By this time, the program had produced 4,977 new schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings, constructed at a total cost of $28,408,520 to serve 663,615 students in 883 counties of 15 states. Despite the conclusion of the program, many Rosenwald schools continued operating into the 1950s.

Significant People

Renowned educator, Booker T. Washington, played a direct role in the development of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Born into slavery, after emancipation Washington moved to West Virginia and began working in a salt furnace and coal mine until he could afford to attend the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. His life experiences instilled the belief that work ethic and education would play a crucial role in improving the place of African Americans in society. In the early twentieth century, Washington became known for espousing his belief that African Americans should further their position in society through vocational education. In contrast to leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, Washington believed that African Americans should focus more on self help and not confront issues such as segregation or the disenfranchisement of black voters. In response to his beliefs, Washington founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama. This school provided vocational training for African Americans throughout the South and received funding from black and white philanthropists. In addition to college-level education, Washington also hoped to make elementary education available to African American children throughout the rural South. In order to achieve this goal, Washington turned to the philanthropists of Tuskegee University to secure the necessary funds to build schoolhouses and implement a vocational curriculum.

Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company from 1908 to 1924, provided the critical funding needed for Washington’s rural school project. In 1912 Rosenwald donated $25,000 to the Tuskegee Institute. A portion of this money became used to build the first six schools in Washington’s rural school program. After seeing the success of the schools, Rosenwald established the Julius Rosenwald Fund to further the program. He hoped that the expansion of Rosenwald schools would put pressure on Southern states to create decent public schools for African American children. In addition to his work with Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald generously donated to a variety of other causes throughout his life including public education, museums, and Jewish charities. While an active philanthropist, Rosenwald also proved to be a shrewd businessman while working for Sears, Roebuck, and Company. He became a partner for the company in 1895 and worked his way up to the position of vice president within one year. Rosenwald’s commitment to customer service and rational management philosophy ultimately led him to becoming president of the company in 1908. While president, he donated over 21 million dollars of his personal fortune to the company when Sears almost reached bankruptcy after World War I, and by 1922 the company had regained financial stability.


As desegregation efforts grew in the 1950s, Rosenwald schools rapidly closed. From the 1950s through the early 2000s many of these abandoned schoolhouses were largely neglected or demolished. As a result of the disappearance of these schools, grassroots activists and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have worked to identify and preserve these important sites. In 2002 the National Trust helped raise awareness about these sites by placing Rosenwald schools on their 11 Most Endangered Places list. Since 2005, Lowe’s has also partnered with the National Trust and contributed over 1 million dollars to help in the restoration of these sites as well as other historically significant sites across the nation. Their funding has allowed the Trust to provide grants to local organizations working to preserve and restore Rosenwald schools. The work of local preservationists, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Lowe’s  has helped to prevent the further destruction of these sites and has also encouraged the restoration of the remaining Rosenwald schools.

For more information

National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rosenwald Schools Initiative

Sears Archives

Biography of Booker T. Washington