A Community Enterprise: The Rosenwald Schools of the National Register for Historic Places

Today’s post was written by Alicia Henneberry, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at College Park, MD

b&w photo of a white wooden one floor, one room school building
The Longstreet Rosenwald School, circa 2009 (NAID 73973387)

Pictured above is the Longstreet School, a small, quaint structure sitting quietly off Louisiana Route 5 in DeSoto Parish, Louisiana. Despite its perfectly ordinary and unassuming appearance, this building represented something revolutionary. It is a Rosenwald School, one of thousands built from 1913 through 1932 for black rural communities in the southern United States. Considered one of the most ambitious American school building projects ever undertaken, it was, more importantly, one of the most significant steps in achieving formal education for black Americans before desegregation. The Longstreet School and other Rosenwald Schools that remain standing today are now preserved on the National Register for Historic Places (NRHP), and viewable in the RG 79 Program Records series (NAID 20812721).

The Rosenwald Schools were the brainchild of the famed educator, activist, and president of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington. Washington envisioned a school building program that would serve as both a solution to the lack of formal schooling available to black communities in the south, as well as a challenge to the institution of white supremacy that made pursuing education difficult. Although some progress had been made during the Reconstruction era with regard to funding and constructing segregated schools in northern urban communities, those in the rural south faced an uphill battle. As Reconstruction ended and southern black politicians were largely forced out of power, white politicians, who viewed the formal education of black children as a challenge to the social order, diverted tax revenue that had been dedicated to schools for black children to white communities. This left many black communities without the power to properly fund the construction of segregated schools, and those few that did exist were woefully inadequate. These rundown buildings, often lacking proper ventilation, heating, and sanitation, made long-term schooling impossible, and did little to inspire black communities to attend school, leaving them little hope for improving their circumstances.

photo of a bust of Booker T Washington
Bust of Booker T. Washington (NAID 559045)

Washington firmly believed that the best way to overcome these challenges and establish rural segregated schools was through both public and private sources of funding that relied on “black-white cooperation.” He was an ardent proponent in the idea of “self-help,” stating that he wished to “encourage southern communities to increase support for black education” by investing in and building their schools themselves. He also believed that technical and vocational education were vital in enabling black Americans to achieve the prosperity and economic foothold necessary to challenge white supremacy. To establish a school system encompassing all of these tenets, he needed a generous donor who believed in his ambitious vision.

Fortunately, a fundraiser thrown in Chicago, Illinois in 1911 honoring the Tuskegee Institute allowed Washington to cross paths with Julius Rosenwald, the wealthy clothier who served as president of the Sears-Roebuck company from 1908 to 1922. Passionate about improving the livelihood of the impoverished and marginalized in America, Rosenwald had a great interest in bestowing his philanthropy on the lives of black Americans. As the son of Jewish immigrants who rose to substantial financial success, Rosenwald had personally experienced the barbs of prejudice and discrimination, and shared much of Washington’s philosophy of self-reliance. Washington convinced the clothier to join the board of the Tuskegee Institute later that year and, with a portion of a $25,000 endowment from Rosenwald, established the first schools for his new plan in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913.

Julius Rosenwald of Chicago, President of Sears, Roebuck and Co., half-length portrait, standing outside the White House, facing left
Julius Rosenwald, 1929 (Library of Congress)

The first school built using Rosenwald’s endowment was the Loachopoka School in Lee County, Alabama. The school was a one-teacher, single frame structure erected at a cost of $942.50. Five more soon followed: the Notasulga School built with the help of local female activists, the two-classroom Madison Park School with modern banked windows, the Little Zion School, the Big Zion School, and the Brownville School. The initial reports were excellent; officials who visited these facilities wrote that the communities were thrilled with their new schools, and an atmosphere of “encouragement and determination” was palpable in those who attended.

These schools, and all those that would follow, were unique in that the funding structure was based on Washington’s philosophy of self-help and community investment. For each school built, Rosenwald agreed to supply a portion of the money needed for the construction, so long as his contribution would be matched by the community itself. Members of the community could donate as little as a penny towards the school, as well as land, construction material, or labor to meet the required costs. With this model, Rosenwald and Washington hoped to stimulate community engagement and public investment in black education.

Impressed by the first schools and the increasingly enthusiastic response to Washington’s plan, Rosenwald committed funds towards the construction of an additional 100 schools across Alabama that aligned with their funding model. The eventual success of the Alabama schools gradually drew the interests of other southern states, causing the program to swell well beyond the boundaries Washington and Rosenwald had initially envisioned. The burgeoning size of the Rosenwald Building Program soon became too much for the resources of the Tuskegee Institute, which led to the establishment of the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917. To qualify for grants from the Rosenwald Fund, proposed schools adhered to a standardized plan that mandated the contribution of county and state funds to match those of the community; a third of the cost would come from the government, a third from the community, and the final third by the Rosenwald Fund. The Rosenwald schools were all built based on designs created by Tuskegee Institute’s Robert R. Taylor, the first black accredited architect, and later augmented and standardized by Samuel Smith, the Fund’s first General Field Agent. There were various sizes for schools offered, most as small as one-teacher schools, but some as large as seven teachers.

As seen above in the designs for one-teacher and seven-teacher schools (NAID 93206654), the Rosenwald schools were characterized by a simple frame structure, topped with a gable roof and painted a variety of muted, neutral colors approved by the Fund. Though understated in style, they were thoughtful in design. For instance, each school building had pale-colored interiors and large windows at an east-west orientation to allow for sufficient light diffusion, yet the windows were also aligned so the sun would not cause unnecessary strain on the children’s eyes when scrutinizing a blackboard. The buildings were also designed to be multi-functional; they were intended to serve as both a school house and a community center that could be used year-round.

interior of the Cairo Rosenwald school in TN, showing bench desks portrait above a door
Interioir of the Cairo Rosenwald School in Tennessee, ca. 1996, showing the light walls, wooden furniture, and portrait of Julius Rosenwald (NAID 135820077)

During the height of the Rosenwald Fund, the schools built were state-of-the-art. They were all equipped with modern amenities like outhouses, numerous blackboards, mahogany desks, and stoves for warmth in winter. Some included playgrounds, kitchens, auditoriums, and a designated lawn space for agricultural lessons. They all included an “industrial room,” where girls and boys were taught a variety of domestic or technical skills such as sewing, farming, and other trade skills, to foster the vocational skills originally advocated for by Washington.

The Fund did not only provide for the construction of rural schoolhouses. It also contributed money towards county training schools and other large facilities, such as Rosenwald Hall at Oklahoma State University, which had originally served as the town’s high school. Grants from Rosenwald were also used to build 217 houses for teachers, 16 vocational shop buildings, and several libraries, as well as improve transportation systems in rural communities and provide training for Rosenwald teachers.

exterior of the brick built Rosenwald Hall
Rosenwald Hall at Oklahoma State University, circa 1983 (NAID 86510482)

By the time the program ended in 1932, over 5,300 schools had been constructed across the American south. Samuel Smith’s school designs proved so innovative and popular that they were published and distributed for free, and ultimately utilized to build both black and white schools alike. The progressive school buildings and on-site accommodations for teachers allowed children to attend school for longer terms and receive a well-rounded education in both academic and vocational skills. By the program’s end, 1 in 5 rural segregated schools in the south was built by the Rosenwald Fund, and one-third of black children in America overall were educated within a Rosenwald School.

6 rows of students flanked by their teachers in front of the Pine Grove Rosenwald School
First graduating class of the Pine Grove Rosenwald School, 1924 (NAID 118996651)

The schools themselves slowly became obsolete following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. When schools across the nation gradually integrated, the Rosenwald schools were repurposed or left abandoned, causing many of the buildings to fall into disuse and decline. The National Register for Historic Places applications for the Rosenwald Schools capture the neglect and obscurity into which many of these structures fell. The New Hope School in Alabama, one of the earliest established under the Rosenwald Building Program circa 1915, was in slow decay when it was submitted for NRHP protection in 2001. With broken windows, sagging supports, and a failing roof, it sat in danger of total destruction, which would have resulted in the loss of a monumental piece of black history.

exterior of the New Hope School showing broken windows, slight overgrowth
New Hope School, circa 2000 (NAID 77834985)

Thankfully, the National Trust for Historic Preservation formally recognized these structures by placing the Rosenwald schools on their “Most Endangered” historic places list of 2002. The National Park Service has since then accepted the Multiple Property Submissions of the Rosenwald School Buildings, ensuring the preservation of the nearly 60 Rosenwald schools that remained standing. These schools have since undergone restoration and renovation, and have been converted to museums, community centers, churches, or back to working schools.

Though the Rosenwald School Building Project never rose as high as challenging segregation outright, it nonetheless represented a significant milestone in the pursuit of formal education for black Americans. Over the course of his life, Rosenwald gave upwards of $63,000,000 to his philanthropic projects, and the Fund itself was responsible for countless fellowships for black students, aid to elementary schools and colleges, and research initiatives regarding race relations. The schools played a large part in Washington’s goal of stimulating public interest and investment in education for black communities, and are now preserved for future generations to cherish and learn from.


Citations:

“The Rosenwald Schools: A Story of How Black Communities Across the American South Took Education into Their Own Hands” National Trust for Historic Preservation. Story Map by Ian Spangler.

“Community School Plans, Bulletin No. 3, the Julius Rosenwald Fund.” Samuel Smith, 1924. Division of Negro Education, Special Subject File, Box 8. North Carolina Digital Collections.

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