Origins at Tuskegee Institute
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia| Posted: 7/7/2008
The Rosenwald school story begins with Booker T. Washington, principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now Tuskegee University. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Washington preached a gospel of self-help for black southerners that emphasized economic advancement through vocational education without challenging racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters. Critics such as W.E.B. DuBois and organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for a direct challenge to segregation. But Washington attracted support from black and white Americans who agreed that economic and education needs should be addressed first in a long term drive for equality, and feared that a more confrontational approach would only unleash a white backlash.
One of Washington's many goals for rural southern African Americans was to provide black children with safe, purpose-built school buildings. At this time, most public rural black schools were dilapidated structures with few amenities other than makeshift desks and benches. Many counties provided few or no public school buildings for African Americans, and so children learned in churches, lodge halls, and other private buildings. Washington's plan was to organize black school patrons to buy land and build schools that would then be turned over to local authorities. These schools would feature a Tuskegee-style "industrial" (vocational) curriculum combining basic literacy and numeracy skills with agricultural and trades programs for boys and home economics study for girls. Rural African American southerners could not afford to tackle these projects without some kind of financial support, and rather than demanding a just share of public school funds, Washington turned to the white philanthropists who supported Tuskegee Institute.
Washington approached Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, in 1912. Rosenwald had already shown interest in supporting building programs by offering matching grants for the construction of Y.M.C.A. buildings. He had recently joined the Tuskegee Institute's board of trustees, and would remain a loyal supporter of the institution until his death in 1932. Like other northern philanthropists active in southern education in the early twentieth century, Rosenwald was fascinated by Booker T. Washington. He agreed whole-heartedly with Washington's philosophy of black self-help, as well as the Tuskegee Institute's industrial program.
On his fiftieth birthday in 1912, Rosenwald had celebrated by distributing monetary gifts to a number of causes, including $25,000 for Tuskegee Institute. This donation funded matching grants to African American teacher-training institutions that followed the Tuskegee model. Finding $2,800 left over after the initial distribution of grants, Washington revived his rural public school scheme. In September 1912, he asked Rosenwald's permission to use the remainder for an experiment in building rural public schools in Alabama. The six original Rosenwald schools included Notasulga and Brownsville in Macon County, Loachapoka and Chewacla in Lee County, and Big Zion and Madison Park in Montgomery County. Each received approximately $300 towards construction costs in the original Rosenwald gift, which allowed schoolchildren and teachers to move out of the churches and lodge halls that had previously housed them. Rosenwald's next step was a $30,000 gift in 1914 for construction of 100 rural schools, followed by gifts for up to 200 additional schools in 1916, each of which could obtain a maximum individual grant of $300.
In 1917, Rosenwald placed his building project under the auspices of a new philanthropic foundation, the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Julius Rosenwald believed that philanthropies like his own Rosenwald Fund should use their grants as seed money to encourage individuals and governments to take responsibility for needed programs and services. He and Rosenwald Fund staff saw the building program as an incentive to southern states to meet their responsibility for decent public schools for black children. Rosenwald's philosophy of philanthropy also led him to disapprove of perpetual trusts because he did not think that they could respond properly to the unknown needs of the future. Thus he directed the Rosenwald Fund's officers to expend its assets to meet its goals in their present time.
A small staff based in Chicago, headed up first by Francis W. Shepardson and then Alfred K. Stern, directed the Rosenwald Fund's early operations. At Tuskegee, a committee of Tuskegee executive officers that included Margaret Murray (Mrs. Booker T.) Washington oversaw the construction program. Clinton J. Calloway, the director of Tuskegee's Division of Extension, coordinated the applications and grants for the individual schools. He worked closely with the state agents for Negro schools, officials of southern state departments of education who were responsible for black public education. Calloway also monitored the reports of the Rosenwald building agents who constantly toured their states, drumming up support among black school patrons and white school officials, and monitoring fundraising and construction efforts. Ten of the fifteen states that participated in the building program also employed Rosenwald building agents for some period of time between 1915 and 1932, with half of their salaries paid by the Rosenwald Fund. Next »