‘Historic partnership’ recalled
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‘Historic partnership’ recalled

Rosenwald Schools had national impact

In the late 1800s, seeking funds to build Alabama’s Tuskegee University – then Tuskegee Normal School – the author and educator Booker T. Washington went up north to solicit help from known philanthropists. Among them was Chicago resident Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co.

“A lot of northern philanthropists were looking to help out with education in the South,” said Tracy Hayes, field officer and project manager for the Rosenwald Schools Initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In the end, she said, Rosenwald’s contribution would help not just Tuskegee, but the cause of public education throughout the south – and the nation as a whole. Through his efforts, some 5,000 schools were opened for African American children, some of which still function today.

To educate the public about Rosenwald’s contribution and raise awareness of the problems faced by these surviving institutions, the trust – a private, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. – is sponsoring a conference June 14-16. The first-ever National Rosenwald Conference, the program is entitled “100 Years of Pride, Progress, and Preservation.”

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Julius Rosenwald Courtesy Peter Ascoli.

The son of German Jewish immigrants, Rosenwald (1862-1932) is widely credited with using his fortune to benefit others, especially Jews and African Americans. Apparently, the philanthropist believed that Jews had a special understanding of the plight of blacks. “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,” Rosenwald wrote.

Rosenwald is also known for his strong views on the proper way to practice philanthropy. Addressing the Associated Jewish Charities of Chicago in 1909, he warned of the dangers of charities that might have “outlived their usefulness.”

“He didn’t believe in perpetual foundations and trusts,” said Hayes. “He felt that everybody should give in their own time- that money is best used to suit the situation and needs at that time.”

Rosenwald also believed in community involvement.

“Part of the deal was that Rosenwald would provide seed money, but it was important for the communities themselves to provide funding so they would feel ownership,” said Hayes.

Ultimately, while Rosenwald provided more than $4.3 million in seed money, African Americans themselves raised more than $4.7 million to build a network of school buildings and teachers’ homes across the South.

Hayes said the schools initiative began when Rosenwald, then a member of the Tuskegee Normal School board of trustees, was approached by Washington, who had funds left over from Rosenwald’s $25,000 contribution and wanted permission to use the money toward the building of rural schools for black children unable to attend schools with white children.

Of the more than 5,000 schools ultimately built as part of this initiative, hundreds remain today, said Hayes.

“The National Trust was able to provide funding through a large grant to help save 41 schools, and we’ve assisted with dozens of others,” she said. “But there are hundreds of others out there.”

She added that when the trust provides grant funding, “We also like to see that the building has a newer, continuing use.”

Rebecca Morgan, the trust’s associate director of public affairs, said, “It’s really about revitalizing communities. It’s the people in the buildings that make them historically significant.”

According to Morgan, more than 5,300 state-of-the-art school buildings, shops, and teacher’s homes were constructed as part of the Rosenwald initiative, revolutionizing African American education in the early 20th century.

“At one time, they were built in 14 states across the South. One-third of the South’s African American children were being educated in Rosenwald Schools.”

The upcoming conference, she said, will focus on “educating people on how to preserve the schools and the memories they represent.” The group is seeking to draw alumni, most now in their 80s and 90s, as well as professional preservationists.

Hayes said the funding for the Rosenwald School initiative has come from private sources, and that current members of the Rosenwald family continue to assist with operating funds and grant funds, serving on the project’s advisory task force. In addition, some $2.3 million has been donated by the Lowes charitable and educational foundation, based in North Carolina.

According to Hayes, it is important to recognize the vital importance of the Rosenwald school-building program.

“It has been called the greatest partnership, the most significant partnership, for educational improvement for African Americans in the early 20th century, but it benefited the entire country,” she said, noting that probably thousands of its graduates migrated to the North in search of jobs and new opportunities. She has no doubt that many came to live in New Jersey.

For more information about the Rosenwald Schools Conference – which, says Morgan, “will celebrate the legacy of Rosenwald Schools, engage our partners to save 100 Rosenwald Schools, and empower activists to preserve hundreds more – visit http://www.rosenwaldschools.com or call (202) 588-6407.

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