The Rosenwald Rural School Building Program was one of the most amazing things I learned while on my genealogical journey. It illustrates how the efforts of a few visionary people can have results that positively affect hundreds of thousands. This story should be in high school history textbooks everywhere.
Julius Rosenwald made a fortune as a former owner of Sears, Roebuck, and Company. In the early 1910’s, he collaborated with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. Together, they provided millions to building schools for black children across the South.
By 1932, the “Rosenwald Fund” contributed to building almost 5,000 schools, teacher’s homes and shop buildings. It was a remarkable accomplishment.
What is most important to know is this: the program required the local black community to raise an amount equal to what the Fund would give. The program also required local public funding.
It is no small feat that largely impoverished black people raised the amounts of money they did. These were people who worked primarily as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. They were the poorest of the poor in most cases.
What a sacrifice it must have been to not only pay $1 for your child to attend school, but to lose the labor of that child which was needed for many families. Not only did they sacrifice scarce money, the men contributed their building skills in the construction of some of these schools. Former slaves did the same during Reconstruction.
Our ancestors knew education was the key to future success. And they would suffer to make that available to their children.
I haven’t met an African-American genealogist who didn’t have a parent or grandparent who attended one of these schools. That is powerful.
That means that we as their descendants are still reaping the benefits of these schools. Local governments were not interested in educating black people.
I can remember early in my research wanting so badly to see these schools. Unfortunately, most of these schools are no longer standing. However, we can research this important part of our history through several good resources.
I finally got to see the outstanding documentary about Rosenwald. He championed many other causes in his lifetime.
Fisk has a wonderful database of Rosenwald schools, searchable by county and state among other variables. Many of these files include pictures of the school, cost, year of completion, etc.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Rosenwald schools its National Treasure status in 2011. That means these buildings have been identified as a critical part of the story of who we are. The Trust also offers a very nice downloadable PDF pamphlet on their Rosenwald program.
There is historical information at their website including its origins at Tuskegee, architectural plans, and links to resources on how to save a school.
Shown below is a preserved Rosenwald school (Mt. Zion) from Florence County, SC:
The National Trust is offering $20,000 matching grants (deadline: April 15, 2013) to save and restore Rosenwald Schools. In 2012, the first National Rosenwald School Conference was held at Tuskegee.
Other interesting links I have found around the web are:
You Need A Schoolhouse
America’s Black Holocaust Museum
Article in Architect Magazine
NPR segment on Rosenwald Schools
The Library of Congress has a lengthy bibliography on Rosenwald Schools
Also, look to state archives for pictures and information about these schools. I found pictures at the Tennessee State Archives.
The Jackson-Davis Collection contains over 6000 photographs of African-American schools, many of which are surely Rosenwald Schools. An amateur photographer, he documented black schools in the South in order to expose their awful conditions.
I particularly like this website because it shows teachers and students in addition to the buildings. It is one of my favorite sites to share with other genealogists.
Someone just sent me this link to Rosenwald schools in North Carolina.
This is the kind of information we should include when we write our family histories. These accomplishments are still relevant, as we continue to struggle today with educating the poor and the disenfranchised.
I recommend two books if you want to learn more:
- You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South, by Stephanie Deutsch.
- Julius Rosenwald: the Man who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the South, by Peter Ascoli.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
What an awesome revelation. I never knew about Mr. Rosenwald. Thank you for introducing him to us.
Indeed , we need to go back and rediscover these lost values. The one reflected in the compassionate act of Mr. Rosenwald is a testament of the kind of commitment needed to educate our young people in the 21s century and beyond.
The fact still remains,that a strong nation and a free nation can only base itself upon education. In today’s world, an educated, skilled and trained workforce is necessary to help equip our young people to take over the management of this country when the time comes. It’s time to go back and rediscover our lost values and act upon them. it’s necesary if we are to move forward instead of backward.
I never have heard of the Rosenwald Fund. But this is such an important story! If this accomplishment –5,000 buildings!–were in textbooks, then people would be more fully motivated to repeat this success story. I’m glad to hear of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is heartening. But we need more Rosenwalds and Washingtons today in our continuing struggle to educate every citizen of this country. We don’t have nearly equal opportunities for education for all. We should. It’s a shame. We are “Waiting for Superman.”
My family attended a Rosenwald school. In Midway Alabama, Bullock County, called Merritt. It is now a historical landmark. It’s used as a Community Center now.
This is my first time hearing about the Rosenwald Schools! Thank you so much for this information. You have just given me another resource to explore in my own state’s archives and collection!
Thanks so much for this data base! My mother, father, aunt & uncles also attended Dunbar in Savannah, TN.