Remembering the Rosenwald Schools

As students start a new school year, this is a chance to honor the legacy of a group of schools that educated hundreds of thousands of Black children. From 1913 to 1932, nearly 5,000 “Rosenwald schools” were built in 15 states, mostly in rural Southern communities. These schools were built specifically to educate Black children, and by 1928 one in three rural Black schoolchildren in the South attended a Rosenwald school. Their history, and the remaining school buildings themselves, are now being reclaimed and preserved.

The schools were named for their primary donor, Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald. The son of German Jewish immigrants, Rosenwald was a clothier who became the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. As a progressive philanthropist, Rosenwald believed one of the country’s most pressing social problems was the “Negro question,” and he supported the ideas and self-help doctrine of Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington. In 1912, Rosenwald was a member of Tuskegee’s Board of Trustees when Washington came to him to suggest donating funds specifically for building Black schools. Most Southern states provided little public funding to adequately educate Black children, and many rural communities had no schools for Black children at all. Washington believed building schools that could provide traditional and vocational education for Black children would be a key method of “race uplift.” After a successful test group of six Alabama schools, in 1917 Rosenwald established the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, and the School Building Program remained one of the foundation’s primary missions until Rosenwald’s death in 1932.

The Rosenwald Foundation provided seed grants for school construction and required communities to supplement the grants with public funds and support from local citizens. Black residents were usually the driving force behind bringing a Rosenwald school to a community and fundraising often became a community-wide undertaking. Black families gathered for fried chicken dinners, picnics, and penny drives or put aside portions of their wages or cotton crops to support school building efforts. Counties then had to commit to maintaining the completed schools as part of the public school system. Though most communities continued the practice of supplying Black schools with worn-out books and second-hand materials, the schools themselves set a new standard in the rural South. Rosenwald schools were built to uniform design plans that mandated simple, clean-lined buildings with large windows and plenty of natural light. Many counties copied some elements of their designs for new white schools. Once built, the schools often became central hubs and gathering places for the Black community.

In the second half of the twentieth century, as schools consolidated into larger districts or students began integrating into previously white schools after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, many Rosenwald schools were abandoned or demolished. In some communities the buildings were kept up and found new life as Head Start classrooms, senior citizen centers, or in other community uses. As recognition of their historic importance began to grow, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the schools to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2002. Activists are still working to preserve the remaining Rosenwald buildings across the South, and earlier this year the Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools Act was signed into law authorizing a special resources study of sites associated with Rosenwald and the schools, another step towards the ultimate goal of establishing a National Historical Park. One of that Act’s original co-sponsors in the House was the beloved late Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), who graduated from a Rosenwald school in Alabama.

Today the School Building Program is sometimes criticized along with many of Booker T. Washington’s other ideas for accommodating the segregated status quo. But in providing school buildings and an opportunity for education for Black children in places where little or none had existed at all before them, Rosenwald schools played a key role. In that sense, their legacy of opportunity is echoed in contemporary education initiatives like the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools® Program, which provides summer and after-school enrichment for children in communities where the need for these quality programs is often greatest. Rosenwald schools brought adults together to nurture and support children’s education and positive development and provided sites that served as safe community havens, and for the community members who worked together to fund and build them, the Black teachers who found employment in them, and the children they served, their promise and impact was unmistakable.

A former slave who donated his life savings, $38, towards building his community’s Rosenwald school said he did so because he wanted “to see the children of my grandchildren have a chance.” Adults today need to have the same kind of faithful vision and the same commitment to doing whatever they can to give today’s children the resources they need right now to build a stronger foundation for generations yet to come.