A Boost for Black Education in the Early 20th Century
Julius Rosenwald was an unlikely fairy godfather. But Rosenwald, child of German-Jewish immigrants and a high-school dropout, was just that for more than half a million poor, mostly rural, Southern black children in the 1920s, including more than 50,000 in Texas. Rosenwald made it possible for them to receive an education in decent, attractive surroundings.
In the early 1900s, most black schoolchildren in the rural South, including many in Texas, attended classes in dilapidated buildings with discarded furniture and equipment and out-of-date textbooks — cast-offs from white schools. In some cases, the white local school-district officials did not provide a building at all, leaving black educators and parents to seek classroom space in churches and lodge halls.
Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1862, Rosenwald started working in the clothing business at age 17. In 1897, he joined the four-year-old Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago when the company’s mail-order catalogs were becoming fixtures in millions of American households. By 1909, he was president and chief operating officer of the company, which had grown into the world’s largest retailer.
Rosenwald believed that America could not prosper “if any large segment of its people were left behind,” so, as his wealth grew, he began donating money to a number of organizations that helped the less fortunate. One of the schools benefiting from the philanthropist’s generosity was Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, now Tuskegee University.
Booker T. Washington, eminent black leader and educator, was the founder and principal of Tuskegee, which emphasized industrial education, such as carpentry, farming, and mechanics. A number of other black leaders, among them W.E.B. Du Bois, believed that industrial training relegated black people to dead-end trades rather than giving them the opportunity, through college educations focusing on academics, to be groomed for leadership and advancement. Washington, however, thought that solving basic educational and economic needs were the first steps toward integration and equal rights.
Rosenwald gave Tuskegee $25,000 for a black teacher-training program in 1912. Washington persuaded Rosenwald to let him use a small portion of it for a pilot program to build six school buildings in rural Alabama. Two years later, Rosenwald made a $30,000 gift to construct 100 rural schools, followed by later gifts for another 200 schools.
In 1917, Rosenwald formed the Julius Rosenwald Fund to make and oversee the grants, with Tuskegee managing the construction projects and dealing with the school boards. The program quickly overwhelmed the Tuskegee managers, and in 1919, the Rosenwald Fund staff assumed responsibility for the entire building project.
How the Grants Worked
The Rosenwald grants, which varied based on the number of teachers to be employed at the school, ranged from $500 for a one-teacher plan to $2,100 for a school with a capacity of 10 or more teachers. They were matching grants: The black communities where the schools were built had to contribute cash and in-kind donations of material and labor to match the grant.
These donations were usually great sacrifices, but the communities pitched in, organizing committees to find and buy the school site, cut lumber, haul building materials, and help construct the building. Church congregations and fraternal lodges held fundraisers; farmers donated the proceeds from an acre of cotton or from selling a number of chickens.
Additional funds came from white donors, but the largest source of funding was tax money. Each county school board — at that time made up of only whites — had to be persuaded to accept the idea of a new, state-of-the-art, schoolbuilding for black students. The school district was also required to take ownership of the property and maintain it as part of the public-school system.
The Rosenwald Fund administrators set specific minimum standards for site size and length of school term. School boards were required to provide new blackboards and desks for each classroom, as well as two sanitary privies.
The school plans, designed by architects who specialized in school design, used banks of large, double-hung sash windows to maximize natural lighting, essential in rural areas without electric service. They also included provisions for good ventilation and sanitation. Designers specified room sizes, blackboard and desk placement, and colors of paint. The buildings’ exteriors were simple and functional. The interiors were orderly, clean, and bright.
Sliding doors and removable blackboards in the smaller schools allowed the space to be opened up for community gatherings. Some larger schools had separate meeting rooms, auditoriums, or gymnasiums for gatherings, allowing the schools to become community centers, as well as educational centers.
Some communities had no provision for housing teachers. In those, grants and plans for “teacherages” — teachers’ houses — were provided. In some cases, a room for teaching shop class was part of the basic school building. For some larger schools, a separate grant provided for a detached shop building.
The Rosenwald Fund expanded to include other grant opportunities:
• Grants to county boards of education to finance term extensions allowed black students to attend school for a full scholastic year and black teachers to earn a decent salary by working a longer term.
• Low-cost school libraries — sets of carefully chosen books — were offered to Rosenwald schools and to rural white schools, as well.
• Transportation grants, inaugurated in 1929, paid for buses to transport students to consolidated schools.
The Rosenwald Fund made their building plans available to any school that wanted to use them. More than 15,000 white schools across the South with no other connection to the Rosenwald project were built using Rosenwald plans.
By the time the last nail was hammered home in 1932, there were 663,615 black schoolchildren in 15 states attending classes in Rosenwald schools. Julius Rosenwald had inspired, guided, and partially funded the construction of 5,357 educational buildings across the South: 4,977 schools, serving an estimated one-third of the region’s rural black schoolchildren, 217 teachers’ homes, and 163 shops.
Texas received 527 buildings in 52 counties, most of them in the eastern half of the state: 464 schools with a 57,330-student capacity, 31 teachers’ homes, and 32 shops.
A 1934 report, “The Development and Present Status of Negro Education in East Texas,” was quoted in a Texas Council for the Humanities article as stating, “Every Negro school visited, . . . except the Rosenwald schools, was housed in crude unpainted box shacks, with no foundation, . . . no desks, blackboard, no window shades, no library and no equipment.”
Where Are They Now?
As important as they were at the time they were built, a great many of the Rosenwald buildings have disappeared. Many of the tiny communities where schools were located no longer exist, having been abandoned in the general movement of people from farms to cities beginning with World War II. Other schools, left vacant when white schools were desegregated in the 1960s, decayed from neglect.
A few Rosenwald buildings were put to other uses by school districts or churches. The Hopewell School in Round Rock, closed in 1966 because of desegregation, was used for a time by the Round Rock Independent School District as a transportation facility. By 1999, it had been sold and was threatened with demolition. Round Rock’s black community protested, proposing a plan to relocate and rehabilitate the building. With volunteer labor, donated materials and funds, and with the Round Rock ISD picking up costs for moving the building to its headquarters, the old five-teacher Rosenwald school was turned into a district teacher-training and meeting facility.
A Baptist church near the Sweet Home Vocational and Agricultural High School in the Seguin vicinity is currently using a former Rosenwald building as a fellowship hall and nutritional center.
The Rosenwald Initiative, a project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in concert with state historic preservation offices, is coordinating the effort to find and document the remaining Rosenwald school buildings. Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, is partnering with the National Trust to conserve and digitize the Rosenwald Fund records.
The National Trust has established a website for the Rosenwald project: http://www.rosenwaldschools.com/. In addition to the history of the school-building project and updates on the organization’s research and recognition efforts, the site features access to Fisk University’s database of Rosenwald schools information.
Of the 527 buildings in Texas partially funded by the Jewish fairy godfather from Chicago, about 30 still-existing structures had been identified as of early spring 2005. Four of those have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places; they are: the Sweet Home Vocational and Agricultural High School south of Seguin; the Lockhart Vocational (Carver) High School; the Garland Community School Teacherage, a five-teacher house near DeKalb in far northeast Texas; and the Pleasant Hill School near Linden in Cass County. The nomination of the Hopewell School in Bastrop County is awaiting final approval.
The Texas Historical Commission is participating in the National Trust’s project to find Rosenwald buildings, and its search for the historical buildings is ongoing.
For Further Reading
Ascoli, Peter M., JR: A Biography of Julius Rosenwald; Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, fall 2006.
Hoffschwelle, Mary S., Preserving Rosenwald Schools; National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C., 2003.
Hoffschwelle, Mary S., The Rosenwald Schools of the American South; University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 2005.
Johnson, D’Ann, “Preserving History with Time Running Out”; Texas Co-op Power, February 2004.
Riles, Karen D., Historic and Architectural Resources Associated with the Rosenwald School Building Program: The Rosenwald School Building Program in Texas, 1920–1932; National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, July 1997–October 1998. (www.nr.nps.gov/multiples/64500652.pdf)
— written by Mary G. Ramos for the Texas Almanac 2006–2007. Mrs. Ramos is a Dallas free-lance writer and editor emerita of the Texas Almanac.