The Rosenwald Rural School Building Program was one of the most amazing things I discovered while on this genealogical journey. It perfectly illustrates how the efforts of a few visionary people can have results that positively affect hundreds of thousands. This should have been, and should be, in high school history textbooks everywhere.
Julius Rosenwald made a fortune as a former owner of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, and in the early 1910’s began a collaboration with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee that eventually gave millions to building schools for black children across the South. By 1932, the “Rosenwald Fund” (as the program was called) had contributed to building almost 5,000 schools, teacher’s homes and shop buildings. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.
The program in most cases required the local black community to raise an amount equal to what the Fund would give, in addition to requiring local public funding. It is no small feat and deserves amplification that largely impoverished black people of the early 20th century were committed enough to education to raise the amounts of money they did. Our ancestors knew education was the key to future success.
I have yet to meet an African-American genealogist who didn’t have a parent or grandparent who attended one of these schools. That means that we as their descendants are still reaping the benefits of schools that were built when local governments didn’t have the will or desire to do it themselves. I can remember early in my research wanting so badly to see these schools, most of which are no longer standing. I was fortunate enough to find photos of many of these schools at the Tennessee State Archives for ancestors in that state. However, resources online today have made researching this important part of our collective history just a little bit easier.
Fisk has a wonderful database of Rosenwald schools, searchable by county and state among other variables. Many (though not all) will pull up with pictures of the school, information about the funding, what year it was built, etc. The photos above are from that database, as you can see the Fisk watermark.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Rosenwald schools its National Treasure status in 2011, which means these buildings have been identified as a critical part of the story of who we are and the Trust resources have coalesced around trying to save 100 of these schools. There is good historical information at their website including background on its origins at Tuskegee, building architectural plans, case studies and links to resources on how to get involved to save a school. The beautifully restored Highland School was preserved in Prince George’s County, MD, which is where I grew up.
The Jackson-Davis Collection contains over 6000 photographs of African-American schools, many of which are surely Rosenwald Schools. I particularly like this website because it shows teachers and students in addition to the buildings.
Someone just sent me this link to Rosenwald schools in North Carolina.
This is the kind of information we should include when writing up our family histories. These accomplishments are still relevant, as we continue to struggle today with educating our poorest and most disenfranchised. If you’re interested in reading more about this wonderful piece of history (which I hope you are) I recommend two books:
“Julius Rosenwald: the Man who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the South,” by Peter Ascoli.
“You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South,” by Stephanie Deutsch.