Why an early 1900s education program for Southern Blacks matters today
Most Americans learned about Reconstruction after the Civil War, and many are familiar with former slave/educator Booker T. Washington. But few people are aware of the unique partnership between Washington, a Black man, and Julius Rosenwald, a white man, resulting in the construction of close to 5,000 “Rosenwald Schools” between 1912 and 1932. It’s a story that has profound lessons for modern day race relations in the United States.
An 1896 Supreme Court decision paved the way for segregation in America, endorsing the concept of “separate but equal” in public facilities, including schools. Southern states employed the ruling to build separate schools for whites and African Americans, but the schools were far from equal; most schools built for Blacks were inferior and some rural Southern counties didn’t build any at all.
As principal of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington was determined to provide quality schooling for Blacks in rural areas of the South. He wanted to build schools, but he recognized the importance of community involvement by both Black and white citizens. His idea was to facilitate Blacks buying land and building schools that would then be operated by local school authorities, typically run by whites.
Washington had a serious problem, however: Blacks simply didn’t have the means to contribute the money needed to build multiple schools. In 1912, he sought funding from white philanthropists. One of them, Julius Rosenwald, was a new member of Tuskegee Institute’s board of trustees. A German Jewish immigrant, Rosenwald was president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, the Walmart of the time. Rosenwald had already offered matching grants to build African American YMCAs, so he was intrigued by Washington’s proposal.
The Washington-Rosenwald relationship blossomed into a partnership, unique for its day. Together, the two men developed a strategy to ensure community involvement. Instead of using Rosenwald’s funding to pay for building schools in their entirety, Washington and Rosenwald specified that monetary grants had to be matched by local contributions in cash, materials and/or labor. This innovative concept guaranteed that rural Blacks would take a stake in each school and make a strong commitment to their communities.
The program began with six rural schools built in Alabama. It was so successful that Rosenwald agreed to fund an additional 100 schools in 1914 and up to 200 schools in 1916. Unfortunately, Washington died in November 1915. In a letter to Margaret Murray Washington, Washington’s widow, Rosenwald wrote in part, “One of our noblest and foremost citizens has passed to his reward. The service he has rendered his fellow men will live forever.” Rosenwald continued to work on the school program through Tuskegee Institute with Mrs. Washington overseeing school construction.
Basic literacy and numeracy schooling were combined with agricultural and vocational training for boys and home economics training for girls. In later years, the funding was expanded beyond construction, with grants being offered to cover teacher salaries, classroom materials, libraries and even radios.
The school buildings themselves boasted innovations designed to maximize learning. Appropriate rooms for vocational activities were included. There were three construction types based on number of teachers rather than number of rooms: A one-teacher school, a consolidated or central school and a county training school. All of the schools featured almost an entire wall of windows to let in plenty of light since electricity was scarce or non-existent in rural areas.
In communities where larger schools were built, plans were expanded to include shop buildings and teachers’ homes. The vision of Washington and Rosenwald was to create campuses that served as community gathering areas.
The Washington-Rosenwald program was controversial to some. While Washington wanted to avoid confrontation between Blacks and whites, Black critics, including W.E.B. DuBois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), disliked the fact that the schools were segregated. They believed African Americans should challenge segregation and fight to be integrated into society. On the other hand, some white county and state officials were not supportive of the Black schools.
The program was also beset by construction problems. Some white contractors used cheaper materials to save money and local citizens were not always skilled at building the schools. A review of the program’s financial records also revealed a lack of careful oversight. Rosenwald took tighter control, appointing a Black former school agent to direct the Rosenwald Fund’s Southern office.
Despite all of the challenges, 4,977 schools, 163 shop buildings and 217 teachers’ homes were built in fifteen states by the program’s end in 1932. More than 663,000 Black children attended the schools. Only about 10 percent of the buildings exist today and many have fallen into disrepair, but efforts are being made by local communities to preserve them with assistance and grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In January 2021, the Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools Study Act was signed into law, authorizing a special resources study of these schools.
Some of the lessons we can learn from this remarkable program are:
1. At a time in the United States when segregation existed and racial tensions were high, a Black man and a white man collaborated to educate African Americans. While the program did not challenge segregation, it symbolized what could be accomplished if Blacks and whites cooperated with a noble goal in mind.
2. The innovative matching grant/community involvement concept employed by Washington and Rosenwald is a model for numerous nonprofit institutions and organizations today.
3. The schools fostered vibrant community life as students, parents and teachers lived and worked together.
4. Students played an active role in caring for and maintaining the schools as part of their responsibilities.
5. Despite his wealth, Rosenwald was a humble man who did not intend for the schools to carry his name. He was not interested in self-aggrandizement — his primary mission was educating children.
6. Were it not for these schools, Blacks growing up in the rural South would not have received a quality education. Many Black leaders, such as the famed civil rights activist/U.S. Congressman John Lewis, attended Rosenwald schools.