Although it’s rare to find one, especially in less than dilapidated condition, if you’re driving through the south, you might just find one. They look an awful lot like churches, with pitched roofs and usually a large bank of windows placed on the east and west side to catch the sun’s rays.
There were just short of 5,000 of these Rosenwald Schools built in 15 states Southern states between 1912 and 1932. More than a place for much coveted education for Black students, who’s education was often ignored in the South, the schools and their programming made them a focal point of community identity and aspirations.
Rosenwald and Booker T.
Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) was the son of poor German-Jewish immigrants but rose up to be a multimillionaire. He bought into Sears, Roebuck & Co. when it was just a small Chicago-based mail-order house and grew it into the largest merchandiser in the country.
Rosenwald had experienced anti-Semitism, and was particularly sensitive to the plight of Black Americans. After reading “Up from Slavery,” he sought out Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). A friendship developed between the two and Rosenwald became a major benefactor of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and served on the Institute’s Board of Trustees.
In 1912, in reaction to the substandard conditions of Black rural schools in the Jim Crow South, Washington enlisted Rosenwald’s support in building six new schools for Black children in Alabama. Rosenwald persuaded other wealthy white philanthropists to join him in setting aside a portion of the funds they donated to Tuskegee to be used to build Black schools in rural Alabama.
The Rosenwald Fund
Rosenwald held education in high regard and considered it the key to African American progress. He also observed that support for black educational opportunities in the South was compromised by the racial policies of white supremacy. Rosenwald was so impressed with the initial results he proposed expanding the programs reach. across the entire southern region. In 1917, Rosenwald established and endowed with $20 million, the Julius Rosenwald Fund for the “well-being of mankind.”
The fund provided money for construction of rural schools and for teacher salaries and school supplies. Rosenwald also stipulated that the support would last for thirty years only. After that point local organizations were to assume support for these schools. Booker T. Washington persuaded Rosenwald to extend his support to allow for the construction of houses for teachers in rural communities.
The Rosenwald Fund school project faced criticism from white Southerners who were irritated that Black schools should receive support over White schools. Southern school boards and state systems of education routinely underfunded African-American schools while allocating more funds for the education of white students. ManyWhite Southerners considered providing any education for Blacks as troublesome and unnecessary.
Rosenwald felt otherwise, and maintained the firm belief that Black self-help was as important as the donation of monetary resources by outsiders. For that reason, Rosewald stipulated that the schools were to be cooperatively built with assistance from the local African American communities. Donations of land and labor by the local community were matched by financial contributions from the Rosenwald Fund. Black communities raised millions of dollars in the two decades that the schools were built.
On July 30, 1948, the Julius Rosenwald Fund dissolved after 30 years of existence, as stipulated by Rosenwald.
The Rosenwald Fund donated to a number of other projects including the work of the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Rosenwald first suggested that Sears could manufacture schools as prefabricated kits—similar to the famous Sears catalog homes—but Washington insisted that design and construction of the buildings should be handled locally, to guarantee the active involvement of the community. To that end, Rosenwald donated part of the cost of each building, requiring matching funds to be raised by local school boards and the black community.
Although the design and construction of the Rosenwald Schools were left to the local community, guidance was provided in the form of technical advice and practical handbooks. In 1915, Tuskegee published The Negro Rural School and Its Relation to the Community, which included building designs by Robert Robinson Taylor. An architect and the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (in 1892), Taylor designed more than 20 buildings on the Tuskegee campus.
The school designs were intentionally ordinary, which made it easy for unskilled volunteer labor to construct. Why they may have been ordinary in appearance, the schools incorporated many design innovations.
The most common arrangement was two classrooms, an adjacent “industrial room” for shop and cooking classes, as well as vestibules and cloakrooms. So-called community schools had more classrooms, and included an auditorium as well as a library. Classrooms had tall ceilings and exceptionally large double-hung windows, typically arranged in batteries for maximum daylighting, which was crucial since many of the sites lacked electricity. East and west light was favored and building orientation was emphasized.
“It is better to have proper lighting within the schoolroom, however, than to yield to the temptation to make a good show by having the long side face the road,” instructed the Tuskegee handbook.
Cross-ventilation was facilitated by “breeze windows”—internal openings—and the buildings were raised off the ground on piers to facilitate cooling. This was green architecture by necessity.
Washington died only two years after the first rural schools were built, but the newly created Rosenwald Fund enabled the program to continue.
By the program’s conclusion in 1932, it had produced 4,977 new schools, 217 teachers’ homes, and 163 shop buildings, constructed at a total cost of $28,408,520 to serve 663,615 students in 883 counties of 15 states.
By 1928, one in every five Black schools in the South had been constructed using aid from the Rosenwald Fund and by 1932 Rosenwald Fund schools accommodated a third of the Southern Black school population across fifteen states. North Carolina had the largest number of Rosenwald Fund schools with a total of 787. Missouri had nine Rosenwald Schools and Oklahoma had five.
Most of the schools continued in existence until the early 60’s when the impact of Brown V. Topeka Board of Education began to force school integration in the south.
Economic & Educational Impact
At the turn of the 20th Century, education for African-Americans was sparse. The education they received was poor and as a result there was about a three-year gap between Blacks and Whites in years of completed schooling.
Dan Aaronson, an economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, researched the impact of the Rosenwald Schools on educational and economic attainment for the students who attended the schools. Rosenwald Schools helped reduce that gap to one year.
“You went from a three-year gap to less than a one-year gap basically between the world wars,” Aaronson says. It’s a huge change.
Aaronson was curious about how progress could be made that quickly. So he got to work, matching up data from where the schools were built with other big datasets, including census data, Medicare data, social security data and World War II enlistment data.
He and other economists used this data to compare communities that had a Rosenwald school with communities that didn’t. It turns out these schools had a big impact on kids in the area.
“First and foremost, they got more education,” says Aaronson. But that’s only the beginning. Students who went to Rosenwald schools had higher IQ scores than kids who didn’t. They made more money later in life. They were more likely to travel to the North as part of the Great Migration. They lived a little bit longer. The women delayed marriage and had fewer kids. And crime rates in the area of the schools went down.
Despite the schools’ historical significance, only a small percentage of Americans are familiar with the structures and their impact on our nation’s history. In January 2002, the Southern District Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation assembled interested state officials, private citizens, representatives from the Rosenwald family and from Sears, Roebuck and Co. into a Rosenwald School Task Force to formulate a plan to raise awareness of the Rosenwald school legacy.
The first step in the plan was to get the National Trust for Historic Preservation to put all surviving Rosenwald schools on the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America list. This was accomplished in June 2002.
A few surviving Rosenwald schools have been restored and are indispensable parts of their communities; they are often used as community centers or to house social service agencies. While some schools are being preserved for community use, lack of resources and neglect still threaten many others.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is committed to preserving a hundred Rosenwald Schools and currently offers grants to assist in their rehabilitation.