Conference Tailor-Made to Support Rosenwald Schools National Treasure


Rosenwald schools are one of the National Trust’s National Treasures involving the preservation of multiple sites.  And the Rosenwald Schools Initiative, which has been working for almost a decade to preserve these schools, is building on its efforts so far to reach and inspire a widespread and varied audience. No small task. In June, the team’s months-long efforts were realized at the National Rosenwald Schools Conference held in Tuskegee, Ala., June 14-16. Through its 54 education sessions, documentary screenings, discussions, and tours, this conference delivered tailor-made information and support to preservationists, community groups, and alumni in their efforts to save these historic Rosenwald schools as vital hubs of community life.

The National Rosenwald Schools Conference: 100 Years of Pride, Progress, and Preservation celebrated the centennial of the Rosenwald schools beginning. One hundred years ago, Julius Rosenwald gave Booker T. Washington permission to use a portion of the money that Rosenwald donated to the Tuskegee Institute for the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama. By 1928, one in every five rural schools for African American students in the South was a Rosenwald school, and these schools housed one-third of the region's rural African American schoolchildren and teachers. By the program’s conclusion in 1932, Rosenwald had contributed more than $4.3 million and African Americans had raised $4.7 million to build 4,977 new schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings which served 663,615 students in 883 counties of 15 states.

With such a long history and wide reach, Rosenwald schools matter to a diverse audience, from alumni to community groups to preservation professionals. The Rosenwald Schools National Treasure Team worked with its local committee to develop the National Rosenwald Schools Conference as a vehicle to convene, inform, and build capacity in both established organizations and emerging grassroots efforts.  Local committee team members included Dorothy Walker and Frank White with the Alabama Historical Commission; Richard Dozier, Daya Taylor, and William Woodsmall, each with Tuskegee University; Shirley Baxter with the National Park Service; Frazine Taylor with the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center; Deborah Gray with the Black Heritage Council; Rosenwald Schools scholar Mary Hoffschwelle, and David Schneider with the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation. In conjunction with the centennial and the conference, the Rosenwald Initiative team revised and updated the National Trust publication Preserving Rosenwald Schools with a best practices guide and case studies for interpreting Rosenwald schools for public audiences. 

The conference attendance reflects this wide reach and significance – more than 400 attendees came from the local community and 22 states. Through generous support from the Alabama Humanities Council, 28 Alabama teachers received scholarships toward registration. The Ford Foundation provided generous scholarship support as well. 

The conference programming included something for everyone. Sessions like Sharing the Progress Digitally, Uncluttering Your Historical Records, Should Your School Be a Museum?, and Get Listed! National State and Local Registers provided practical approaches for attendees new to preservation techniques, while Preserving African American Heritage: Heirs’ Property, Special Legislation: Protecting Rosenwald Schools, and Developing Programming Strategies to Sustain Your Rosenwald School offered specialized information particularly relevant to issues associated with the preservation of Rosenwald Schools.

Special programming and tours supplemented these education sessions and offered different platforms for discussion and reflection. Films such as White Buildings – Black Children and The Impact of Rosenwald Schools Today gave the filmmakers and attendees opportunities to engage in discussions about preserving the Rosenwald schools story through digital media. Book signings set aside time for attendees to converse with authors Stephanie Deutsch, Peter Ascoli, Mary Hoffschwelle, and Andrew Kahrl. Walking and bus tours of Tuskegee sites, the Shiloh Rosenwald School, and Alabama’s civil rights sites offered attendees the chance to experience places and their associations with Rosenwald schools.  And, the poster sessions gave attendees the opportunity to present (and even sing about) the special Rosenwald schools’ projects happening throughout the country.  

Descendants of the gentlemen credited with initiating the Rosenwald schools programRosenwald, Washington, and Clinton Callowayattended, presented, and participated in sessions and events throughout the conference, giving it a family affair feel. The Rosenwald family has generously supported the Rosenwald School Initiative, and at the conference, Alice Rosenwald surprised the crowd with an additional $100,000 gift toward the program. Peter Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald’s grandson, and Robin Washington Banks, Booker T. Washington’s great-granddaughter, reflected on their grandfathers’ history and legacies at the opening plenary.

The Friday Night Reunion gave attendees the chance to gather, eat, and dance with other alumni. Dynamic words from National Museum of African American History and Culture chief curator Jacquelyn Serwer and poet Nikki Giovanni closed the event-filled three days on an inspiring high note.

Described by many attendees as a huge success, the National Rosenwald Schools Conference with its tailor-made content, events, and celebrations, served as a key element in the efforts of the Rosenwald Schools Initiative to engage and encourage diverse audience in saving Rosenwald schools. And its work continues. In the months ahead, the team plans to design and implement capacity- building workshops, develop a digital media campaign (including podcasts!), and establish a grant program to help and support the continued work to save Rosenwald schools. Go to www.preservationnation.org/rosenwald to read more about the history and ongoing efforts of the Rosenwald Schools Initiative.  To learn more about Rosenwald Schools as a National Treasure, visit www.savingplaces.org/treasures/rosenwald-schools.

If you would like a copy of the revised edition of Preserving Rosenwald Schools, please email rosenwald@nthp.org.