Rosenwald Schools Change Direction, 1928-1932

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia| Posted: 7/7/2008

In 1928 the Rosenwald Fund commissioned a design from Frank Lloyd Wright for a school in Hampton, Virginia. Wright seems to have been eager to put his own stamp on the Rosenwald program, whose designs he disparaged as "Yankee things" unsuited to their African American users' cultural traditions. However, his own design was never built because, he alleged, it was "Not Colonial."

Wright's complaint was not fully justified. By the end of the 1920s, Fund officials had become convinced that their designs needed updating, but not necessarily more Colonial Revival details. They hired Walter McCornack, a prominent school architect from Cleveland, Ohio, to undertake a complete review of the Community School Plans as well as of the plans submitted for the industrial high schools. Some of the resulting proposals for larger buildings included more elaborate detailing, such as lanterns, meant to invoke the South's colonial Georgian architectural heritage. Embree and the Chicago staff rejected what they called "belfries" and "frills," however, and the schools maintained their restrained styling.

At the same time, Fund officials experimented with new incentives, like the urban industrial schools, and cut out small schools. Since 1928, the Rosenwald Fund had offered a 50 percent increase in aid for "permanent" (generally brick) construction, which tended to favor the large plans. A similar incentive went to school buildings in "backward" counties, where African Americans comprised less than 5 percent (after 1931, 10 percent) of the population and no Rosenwald building had yet been constructed, to attract counties that had not yet responded to the program. Meanwhile, grant amounts for schools up to six teachers had been cut in 1927 to encourage larger consolidated elementary and secondary schools. Aid to one-teacher buildings, which had been cut from $500 to $200, ended completely in 1930, and grants for two-teacher buildings and additions to existing Rosenwald schools stopped in 1931.

The Rosenwald Fund staff and trustees obviously were winding down the school construction program. In part their decision to move away from the building program was based on the Rosenwald Fund's philosophy and changing priorities. Rosenwald, Edwin Embree and the board of trustees felt that if they continued construction grants indefinitely, southern school boards would remain dependent on Rosenwald aid and contributions from local African Americans and continue to shirk their full responsibility for black public schools. They also wanted to redirect resources toward rural school instruction, higher education, public health, and race relations projects. The stock market crash and ensuing economic depression, which wiped out much of the value of the Sears, Roebuck stock that supported the Rosenwald Fund, only increased the pressure to abandon the building program. In 1932 Edwin Embree and Samuel Smith announced that no further construction grants would be forthcoming, to the dismay of communities still waiting for their chance at a Rosenwald school.