The Rosenwald Schools: A Brief History

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Rosenwald Schools, first established in 1912 to educate African Americans in the rural south (http://on.mgmadv.com/M5zNJJ). Over 5,300 schools were built in 15 states, from Maryland to Texas, all financed in part by Julius Rosenwald (of Sears, Roebuck & Co.). This funding initiative concluded in 1932 and yielded 5,357 buildings in 883 counties. Significantly, North Carolina was home to over 800 Rosenwald Schools, the most of any state (http://www.historysouth.org/schoolhistory.html). A map of Rosenwald School locations is available online here.

As an attempt to rectify the gross inequities of contemporary public schooling opportunities for African Americans, Rosenwald’s philanthropy was inspired by Booker T. Washington’s “hands-on self-help approach,” as modeled by his foundational work in establishing the Tuskeegee Institute (http://www.historysouth.org/schoolhistory.html). In keeping with Dr. Washington’s vision for public schooling, Rosenwald schools were conceived as community centers that “would not only teach the young, but would help dispersed rural people come together to improve farming technique and forge a strong community culture” (http://www.historysouth.org/schoolhistory.html).

In addition, the Rosenwald Schools pioneered the concept of the matching grant: “If a rural black community could scrape together a contribution, and if the white school board would agree to operate the facility, Rosenwald would contribute cash – usually about 1/5 of the total project” (http://www.historysouth.org/schoolhistory.html). The buildings themselves were also distinctive, resulting from state-of-the art architectural plans that painstakingly took into account the scarcity of electricity in rural areas and instead sought to maximize natural light by all means possible; to the point that different floor plans existed based on which compass direction a specific building would face (http://www.historysouth.org/schoolhistory.html).

Despite their far-reaching impact and historical cultural significance, however, few of the original structures remain. In 2002, the Rosenwald Schools made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places (http://www.hpo.ncdcr.gov/rosenwald/rosenwald.htm). Beginning in 2000, the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and the North Carolina Rosenwald Schools Community Project (RSCP) have combined forces to conduct surveys, aid in the addition of 25 Rosenwald structures in the National Register, and identifying 39 additional candidates for inclusion (http://www.hpo.ncdcr.gov/rosenwald/rosenwald.htm). In honor of this year’s centenary, the first National Rosenwald Schools Conference was held in Tuskegee, Alabama last week. Stay tuned to the SCL blog for more on this topic!

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