Julius Rosenwald gave the gift of education to rural African American communities
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This is part III in a series about how philanthropic gifts have shaped Georgia. Click here to read about philanthropy and democracy, and here to read about the gift to Georgia Tech that was inspired by Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight.
By Jamil Zainaldin
Where did Congressman John Lewis, age 77, learn to read? In a Rosenwald school. Where did the great poet Maya Angelou, who died at the age of 86, get her schooling? In a Rosenwald school. This is the story of the philanthropic origins of the Rosenwald schools, built in the early 20th century in rural African American communities across the South.
The schools were the product of a vision shared by northern businessman Julius Rosenwald, president of the Sears and Roebuck Company, and Booker T. Washington, author and leader of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute.
A chance meeting between the men in 1910 was the occasion for Rosenwald to learn more about the South and education. Schooling was bad enough for the South’s white sharecropper families who could barely eke out a living in those boll weevil days. For rural African Americans, it was even worse. In addition to hardcore poverty, the poll tax froze them out of any public political life at all, while the KKK made sure they stayed down. Georgia was no different than most southern states.
Not long after Rosenwald met Washington, he accepted an offer to join the board of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Impressed by what he saw, Rosenwald endowed the college to relieve Washington of the practically full-time occupation of raising money in the North. The two of them next turned their attention to how to put a dent in the massive problem of educating the African American children of the rural countryside.
To say this was bold is an understatement. In the Jim Crow South, lack of education and resources was just another way of constricting black lives, although schooling for rural whites was hardly much better. The entire South was still reeling from the physical, psychological, and economic devastation of the Civil War.
In 1915, just a few years after he and Rosenwald began working together, Washington died of a massive heart attack at the age of 59. He and Rosenwald were just beginning to make progress in building a self-supporting model for educating rural African Americans. Their idea had been to use private money to build rural schools that might become feeders to a handful of new black colleges, like Tuskegee, that were springing up, while also offering the most basic skills of an education that could lead to real self-improvement.
Rosenwald personally took an extraordinary step — or should we say leap — after Washington’s death. In silent tribute to the man, Rosenwald created a new foundation “for the well-being of mankind” (his words) in 1917, the same year that the notorious robber barons Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller established their foundations, too.
Working closely with the leadership of Tuskegee Institute, Rosenwald contributed his own business acumen, as well as access to the best technical and educational advice available. The result was to tackle the most pressing need — facilities — and invest in the construction of school buildings in rural African American communities in the South.
Rosenwald’s plan was smart, too: the fund would offer a matching grant to any black rural community willing to organize and invest their own resources to build a public school.
A Rosenwald school is a simple purpose-built structure, appealing to the eye, and comparable, if not superior, to the schools of the nearest white neighbors. For each rural school site there was a strict requirement that it follow one of the detailed and vetted building plans for one-story, typically one-teacher schools with two or three rooms. The schools were smartly simple: they were always oriented to natural light; desks and blackboard were moveable; and dividers allowed for the subdivision of a single class. There was a cloakroom area and storage space for supplies and such.
Finally, the Rosenwald Fund required that before any community could receive its matching grant, it must first obtain the blessing of the county education board (an obviously wise move). In this way Rosenwald schools became fully functioning public schools embedded in the state’s educational infrastructure.
Why did Rosenwald take on this crusade?
Booker T. Washington was exceptional, and Rosenwald recognized the genuine article when he heard and saw it. He hitched his wagon to Washington’s vision.
But something also resonated with his deepest core — something that made the project Rosenwald’s as much as Washington’s. Said Rosenwald, “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer.”
By the time Rosenwald died in 1932, his fund had built 4,977 schools in 15 southern states, with 243 of those in Georgia. There were known Rosenwald schools in at least 103 of our state’s counties.
What do we make of this amazing act of generosity? There is just no way yet to assess that, at least not in terms of data; most of the records are gone with the wind. But we do know what the schools, the one thing that could not be taken away, meant to those lucky communities. We also know that the teachers in these schools tended to be the best and brightest from such African American colleges as Wilberforce, Fisk, and Atlanta’s own Spelman College, Morris Brown College, Atlanta University, and Morehouse College. These young graduates took on these jobs as true callings.
We also know that together with the local church, sometimes located right next door, Rosenwald schools frequently doubled as community centers and gathering places for residents.
I also suspect some Rosenwald schools operated as informal libraries. After all, a curious parent who had heard stories from a child — especially about the achievements of African Americans in exotic places like Chicago and New York and Detroit — would naturally want to know more about faraway people who once might well have been their neighbors.
But where are these schools today?
Beginning around 1948 there were new mandates in southern states to build so-called equalization schools for African Americans only. Why? Immediately after World War II, southerner Harry Truman integrated the armed forces. Southern governors and legislators saw what was coming next and were ready. (Recall that the whole legal structure of segregation in the South rested upon a single case, Plessy v. Ferguson, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. This case ruled that legalized segregation on trains, in schools, in theaters, and in public facilities like bus stations, waiting rooms, and hospitals did not violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, provided that the separate spaces were of equal quality. That was the formula, and any remaining dominos of resistance now fell. In no time, segregation everywhere and all the time became a foundation stone of the region.)
Equalization schools would raise the educational bar for African American schools and preserve segregation. In the span of a summer or two, 4,000-plus Rosenwald schools and innumerable others were dismantled or shuttered, left to melt away into the kudzu.
Today, tracking down a Rosenwald school is like finding a needle in a haystack. It requires maps of the time, and usually first-hand testimonials about the school’s approximate location — and there are not many of those left. The good news is that in 2015 the National Trust for Historic Preservation classified Rosenwald schools as national treasures, and we have a few fully restored schools in Georgia now.
What difference did these schools make? There’s no way we can ever really know, but we can use the inspirational careers of John Lewis and Maya Angelou to speculate. In the persons of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, we well may be looking at another episode of change-agent philanthropy that ripples through history with hidden effect. Such was the kind of civic philanthropy our nation’s founders would have encouraged and the ancient Greeks would have applauded.
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.