Reinventing Rosenwalds

As the Rosenwald School program celebrates its centennial, preservationists are intensifying efforts to save the historic buildings and re-establish them as community hubs across the South and Southwest

The road from Rocky Mount to Castalia, N.C., runs between fields of tobacco that stretch to the horizon, seemingly without end. The lush green view one sees today has changed little in the 90 years since local African-Americans collected $1,000 to help pay for a simple white clapboard schoolhouse just across the road from Castalia Missionary Baptist Church. The school was one of 19 in Nash County, one of 787 in North Carolina, and one of 4,977 scattered across 15 states. All were built with grants from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to better the education of African-American children who lived off the dirt roads at a time when public education in the South was separate and far from equal.

Eunice Williams of Rocky Mount is more than 90 years old, but she remembers that time well. She used to walk with her brothers and sisters three miles from the farm where their father raised “cotton, tobacco, corn, ’cane—everything to feed a family of nine children” through woods and fields to the Castalia School, where three teachers taught grades one through seven. The love of learning born in those classrooms carried Williams through the secondary level at Nash County Training School, another Rosenwald-funded building, to Elizabeth City State Teachers College (now Elizabeth City State University), a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, and a 40-year career as an elementary school teacher in the Nash County community where she grew up. She says she can no longer get out like she used to, when she would regularly visit her students in their homes to discuss school, but she hopes to live long enough to see the school where she got such a good start restored, able again to serve the public.

The remarkable story of the Rosenwald schools, and their powerful connection to African-American communities, begins in the aftermath of slavery, when freedom meant, as much as anything, the opportunity to get an education. Most of the states that allowed slavery had passed laws forbidding even rudimentary learning for enslaved persons; among freed men and women there was tremendous thirst for learning and the unshakable conviction that education was the road to a better life. No person epitomizes that longing more than Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery in the foothills of western Virginia, walked much of the way from there to Hampton Institute in the Tidewater region, and in 1881 became the founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which, like Hampton, was established as a training school for black teachers.

Thanks to this accomplishment and to his autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington became one of the most prominent black man in the country. In 1911 he made what turned out to be a fortuitous acquaintance with another well-known and widely respected man, Julius Rosenwald. The son of Jewish immigrants from Prussia, Rosenwald had grown up in Springfield, Ill., in a house down the street from the Lincolns’. He learned the clothing business as an apprentice to two uncles in New York City, and in 1895 he bought into a small, unknown mail-order company called Sears, Roebuck and Co. This astute move and his skill as a manager quickly made Rosenwald a millionaire many times over.

In May 1911, when they met at a Chicago luncheon, he and Washington each had something the other wanted. Washington was always eager to meet wealthy individuals who might contribute much-needed funds to Tuskegee; Rosenwald, beginning an exceptional career as a philanthropist, wished to learn more about what was referred to as the country’s “Negro” population. He had been donating to help Jewish victims of the state-sanctioned violence of pogroms in Europe and was disturbed that in America black people were subjected to similar hostility and violence.

Despite the obvious gulf between them, the two men liked and trusted each other. The day after their meeting, Rosenwald invited Washington to be his guest for a tour of the enormous, state-of-the-art Sears headquarters. Washington reciprocated by inviting Rosenwald to visit Tuskegee, which he did a few months later, accompanied by his wife, his sister and brother and their spouses, several friends who were community leaders, and Emil Hirsch, his rabbi and mentor.

Rosenwald was profoundly impressed by his first visit to Tuskegee—by the elegant brick buildings designed by an African-American architect and built by students, orderly classrooms, model farm, skilled faculty, meticulous administrators, and eager students. At an evening service in the school’s Romanesque Revival chapel (since demolished), the students sang spirituals. Hearing the music born in slavery for the first time moved Rosenwald deeply. He agreed to serve on the board of trustees and began a lively correspondence with Washington, who quickly brought to his attention the lamentable state of primary education in the rural South, where the states ostensibly provided public schools but divided their funds very unequally between systems for white and African-American children. Before long Washington had suggested that a small amount of the money Rosenwald had pledged to Tuskegee be diverted into a fund to build six schoolhouses in nearby rural communities. Then he added a consideration he knew would appeal to Rosenwald. In many places, poor farmers and sharecroppers had already been raising funds to build schools. They could match grants from Rosenwald and would contribute land, materials, and labor, as well.

By the time Booker T. Washington died in 1915, the school-building program was wildly popular. In part because Southern business owners were fearful of losing their African-American workforce to the lure of northern opportunity and pushed by the contributions from Rosenwald and the communities, local school systems also became willing to provide a share of funding for the schools. By 1920 Rosenwald had created the Julius Rosenwald Fund and an office in Nashville to administer the rapidly growing schools program, which provided encouragement to the state agents for Negro schools (positions created with funding from the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board) and guidance to Rosenwald school agents who worked with communities to coordinate fundraising and to supervise building. The fund sent standard plans and detailed directions for the location and construction of the schools.

When the program ended in 1932, it had built 4,977 schoolhouses, 217 homes for teachers, and 163 shop buildings. There was a school in almost every Southern county with a significant African-American population. By 1928, one-third of all African-American children in the South were being educated at Rosenwald schools.

Remarkably, no one can say for sure exactly how many Rosenwald school buildings are standing today. In the years following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that found separate education for blacks and whites inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional, local school systems consolidated and generally placed classes in the larger and better-equipped buildings that had previously been reserved for white children. Many Rosenwald schools were closed; in the years that followed, some fell apart or passed into private hands. Many simply vanished.

In the past 20 years, though, from the Maryland suburbs to east Texas, alumni have been organizing to push for the preservation of the school buildings and the story they tell. In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the schools to the annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. More than 100 have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This past June, the Trust sponsored One Hundred Years of Pride, Progress & Preservation, a conference in honor of the Rosenwald schools’ centennial, bringing together 350 alumni, preservationists, and scholars at Tuskegee University to celebrate the schools’ legacy and to discuss strategies for giving the buildings new life as community centers and small museums. Participants learned about dealing with local legislators, heard reports on state surveys finding and documenting the remaining schools, viewed documentary films, and shared memories.

Mae Williams came to the conference with her daughter Tiffany Williams Jennings, who works for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County, Md., where the renovated Ridgeley Rosenwald School, built in 1927, recently opened to the public as a meeting venue and museum. Williams remembers “a great experience in the classroom … The teachers cared so much.” Shirley Johnson of Notasulga, Ala., who retired after a 40-year career working at Tuskegee University, says her teachers “prepared us as if we were all going to Harvard.”

Hearkening back to attitudes that Washington had encouraged at Tuskegee, teachers thought of themselves as role models for the communities they served. It was not unusual for Rosenwald teachers to board in the homes of children in their schools, and their classrooms were characterized by high expectations and warm affection. They visited homes and organized plays, concerts, and athletics for the children and fundraising fish fries for the adults. The principal of the Shiloh School that Johnson attended lived in Montgomery but during the week stayed with a local family. Johnson remembers that parents often attended school functions. “We had dances,” she said, “but of course you couldn’t do anything ’cause the parents were watching.”

Many former Rosenwald students remember walking long distances to school. Fay Nicholas walked to Amissville Rosenwald School in Rappahannock County, Va., and says her father petitioned the county for a school bus, with no success. As she and her friends walked to school, sometimes a bus would pass them with the “white kids hollering out the window.” Thomas Boyd walked two miles to Zion Hill School near Montgomery, Ala., and didn’t think too much about the school bus that passed him. “We knew how it was,” he says. He’s now the president of the Montgomery County Farmers Service and Welfare Association, which is working to preserve the Tankersley Rosenwald School in Hope Hull, Ala. “It’s all your history,” he says, “and you’ve got to know it … If it hadn’t been for Booker T. and Mr. Rosenwald, none of the country people would have had an education.”

That education, rooted in community and determinedly forward-looking, helped prepare the way for the activism of the 1950s and ’60s. More than one person at the conference referred to the “Negro rural school movement” as the first stage of the civil rights movement. The late Charles Morgan Jr., a lawyer who began his career in Alabama and devoted much of it to civil rights cases, noted that from the Rosenwald schools came “the parents of the generation who marched and sang and risked their lives in the revolution for equal justice under the law.” Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, whose father worked for the Rosenwald Fund, made the same point in a film about the schools shown at the Tuskegee conference. Eunice Williams from Castalia remembers that when she visited students’ homes, she would sometimes talk with parents about the importance of registering to vote. Addressing the conference’s closing plenary, Alvin Thornton marveled at the career that had taken him from an Alabama Rosenwald school, Randolph County Training School, to Morehouse College and a Ph.D. in political science from Howard University, where he served as chair of the department before becoming the senior advisor to the university president. The example of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald and the people who built the schools, he said, offers a model of activism and community involvement that still inspire for today.

Barbara J. Mahone and her nine siblings walked two and a half miles from the farm where they lived to the Shiloh School in Notasulga, near Tuskegee. Their resourceful grandparents, born into slavery, had acquired land and become successful cotton farmers, selling chickens and butter decorated with florettes to Booker T. Washington, among others. A former executive with General Motors and a Reagan administration appointee with Senate confirmation as a member and chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority who now lives in Michigan, Mahone is chairman of the board of the Shiloh Community Restoration Foundation. “As a people,” she says, “we don’t have a lot of artifacts. What we have are our stories.” Those stories, about a time now a half-century past, are less about the deprivation and prejudice that were standard in that era than about the strong values absorbed by the children who went to Rosenwald schools—self-sufficiency, hard work, helping others, respect for parents and grandparents, love. By recalling those stories, she says, the movement to restore Rosenwald schools is about more than buildings. It’s about preserving “the soul of our community.”

Stephanie Deutsch is the author of "You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South."

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