Rosenwald Schools, Students, and Communities
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia| Posted: 7/7/2008
Many of the Rosenwald schools remained in operation until the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was implemented during the 1960s and school integration in the 1970s. During that time, Rosenwald schools served generations of teachers, students, parents, and other community members.
Grassroots support was the critical ingredient for the success of the Rosenwald school building program. A shared faith in the power of self-help led Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald to insist on local contributions to match the amount of a Rosenwald grant, rather than insisting on full public or philanthropic funding. They believed that personal sacrifices of hard-earned cash, lumber, and labor would strengthen rural African Americans' commitment to their communities. In practice, the self-help requirement made rural African Americans the driving force behind the Rosenwald program and the arbiters of its meaning for southern communities.
Local African American leaders—teachers, principals, school trustees, ministers, and successful farm or business owners—often initiated building campaigns. They wrote to state education departments, Tuskegee Institute, and the Rosenwald Fund for information, lobbied county superintendents and school boards for additional funding, and recruited their fellow citizens' support. To make their matching contribution, school patrons organized themselves into committees to find and buy the land, to cut trees and saw the lumber for the school, and to haul the building materials to the school site, sometimes even to build the school themselves. Those who pledged contributions of money and labor included rural wage earners such as sawmill and domestic workers, farm owners and tenants, and the members of church congregations and fraternal lodges. Some donated a day's pay or the proceeds of an acre of cotton; others sold chickens. School rallies, community picnics, and entertainments brought in cash as well. The result was a school building that stood as a tangible expression of a community's determination to provide a decent education for its children.
Another aspect of the Rosenwald program that has attracted attention since the first Tuskegee buildings is the provision for industrial education. Some black and many white educational reformers and philanthropists embraced industrial education as a "safe" strategy for improving public education for black children. Industrial education would assure white southerners that the existing racial hierarchy would remain intact, but with a more contented and better skilled black work force. For others, it was simply a strategy for buying white support that they planned to use to secure better academic programs for black schools. Once again, the Rosenwald Fund found that local people would determine how its programs would be implemented. State agents for Negro schools and Rosenwald building agents constantly complained of finding industrial education rooms functioning as regular classrooms.
Former Rosenwald students recalled plenty of work, discipline, and community-oriented activities. Boys often began fall and winter school days pumping water and building fires. Girls and boys helped the teacher to clean the school and maintain the grounds. Recollections about teachers and classroom activities emphasize strict standards of personal deportment and attention to their studies, as well as the fun children had sharing lunches and playing sports. The school also functioned as a gathering place for the community. In smaller schools, people pushed aside the movable partitions between classrooms or raised up blackboards to create openings between the rooms so that they could gather together. Larger schools had auditoriums and gymnasiums for school use and public events. In addition to school plays, competitive sporting events, student socials, and graduation ceremonies, Rosenwald schools also opened their doors to the community for speeches, public meetings, and entertainments such as magic shows, movies, and dramatic performances. Former Rosenwald students described the work ethic, discipline, and community values that parents and teachers instilled in them as positive life lessons, but they resented that white authorities continued to pay little attention to black children's needs, sending them cast-off textbooks and equipment from the white schools and offering few or no secondary grades.
Although the Rosenwald program did not challenge school segregation head-on, it did challenge the racial ideology behind segregation. Progressive educators and school architects recognized Rosenwald schools as part of their campaign for modern standardized school plans. The modest, cost-conscious designs with their industrial rooms identified them as rural schools for black children, but these features also made them useful to states that were rapidly expanding their public school infrastructure and vocational education programs for all students. Professional educators and cost-conscious school administrators borrowed freely from Rosenwald plans in developing their own state-approved school designs. They used these plans to build black schools that did not receive Rosenwald grants, and to build schools for white children as well. Consequently, although educated separately, many southern white and black children learned in classrooms that looked and felt the same—open, bright, orderly, clean—thanks to Rosenwald designs.