During the Jim Crow era the African American community helped build Rosenwald schools across the South to ensure that their children received a quality education. Today, the legacy of these schools is fading from the memories as well as the landscape of our community. The buildings are on the list of America’s most endangered historical places. And yet, the Rosenwald Schools along with the teachers who led them are an important part of African American history.
In the early 1900’s, it was clear that America was unwilling to invest in the education of African American children. In communities that provided schools, the buildings were dilapidated and many teachers had little education. Booker T. Washington recognized the urgent need to address this issue. He reached out to Julius Rosenwald, President of Sears, Roebuck and Company who had recently joined the Board of Trustees of Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald agreed to fund a 6 small schools in Alabama. Eventually, the program was expanded and helped to finance almost 5,300 schools, shops and teacher’s homes in 15 states.
In order to receive a grant, each community had to raise additional funds. The school board had to purchase the land as well as provide teachers with salaries and supervision. According to historian Joanne Abel, “The African American community was doubly taxed. Once for their regular taxes and then they provided additional funds as well as contributed labor and materials.” Recognizing the need for a quality education to improve the lives of their children, African Americans donated millions of dollars.
To build the schools, communities were given blueprints and strict requirements for construction. Inspectors ensured that they met the standards. The schools were designed by a Tuskegee architect and were considered to be state of the art. In some cases the Rosenwald schools were so exceptional that the white communities took them over.
The Rosenwald schools were operated by a team of educators called the Jeanes teachers. Historian Joanne Abel said, “The Jeanes teachers were the unsung heroes of the Jim Crow schools.” In 1907, a Quaker named Anna Jeanes donated a million dollars to create “The Fund for Rudimentary Schools for Southern Negroes” which paid the salaries for the teachers. In addition to overseeing instruction for the children, the Jeanes teachers led fundraising efforts, arranged healthcare, offered adult education and even started land co-ops to enable sharecroppers to purchase their own land. Despite their many sacrifices, the motto of the Jeanes teachers was “Do the next needed thing.”
North Carolina had 800 Rosenwald schools, more than any other state in the country. This was primarily the result of the efforts of Dr. Aaron Moore, founder of Mutual Life Insurance, Lincoln Hospital and Mechanics and Farmers Bank. He spearheaded fundraising efforts and lobbied politicians, businessmen and educators. He even paid the salaries of the first Jeanes teacher in Durham and North Carolina’s first rural school inspector. Moore developed a fundraising pamphlet as well as a card that stated, “My message to you is to emphasize the importance of child training: without which all parental, civil and religious governments must fail”. He signed every letter with, “Yours in racial uplift”.
At the end of segregation most Rosenwald schools were either abandoned or destroyed. Today, the National Trust for Historic Perseveration is striving to identify and document Rosenwald schools as well as promote their renovation. It is a major undertaking and just as the African American community worked together to build the schools, we must come together again to save them.
This June, the City of Durham is hosting a national conference for the Rosenwald schools. There will be Rosenwald school exhibits at the Durham History Hub and the Durham County Library. To learn more about these events, to volunteer or to make a donation, go to www.africanamericanarts.org.