What We Can Learn from the Rosenwald Schools

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Teachers or agents of the Rosenwald Rural Schools in 1916. Robert Russa Morton, principal of the Tuskegee Institute, is seated at center. (Library of Congress)

A century ago, philanthropy plus voluntarism made major improvements in African Americans’ education.

The addition of Juneteenth to our country’s annual celebrations is not just a long-overdue recognition of the end of slavery but also an opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary efforts of black Americans to transform their lives in the face of societal barriers. The creation of Rosenwald Schools was a testament to such efforts. Through the Great Depression, 90 percent of black Americans lived in the Jim Crow South, and it was there that Julius Rosenwald used a substantial share of his wealth to partner with black communities to build the schools those communities were determined to have.

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Rosenwald was one of a number of successful German Jewish immigrants who saw racial inequality as a great stain on American society, not unlike the anti-Semitism that had driven their forebears to leave Europe. Many of these men took counsel from Booker T. Washington and invested in black institutions and organizations. Tuskegee Institute (now University) and Howard and Fisk Universities were prominent recipients of their generosity, and so, too, were the NAACP and Urban League. For Julius Rosenwald the education of black children in decent, modern schoolhouses was a primary focus.

The first Rosenwald school began construction in 1913, and by 1932, 4,977 had been built. They are estimated to have served 36 percent of rural black children by the end of segregation. According to a 2011 study by Dan Aaronson and Bhashkar Muzamder, analysts with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Rosenwald programs account for at least 30 percent of the sizable educational gains of African-American children during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. In the longer run, exposure to the schools raised the wages of African Americans who remained in the South relative to Southern whites by about 35 percent. Rosenwald schools were public schools, operated by white school boards, but they were better built and equipped for learning than the all-black schools of the day.

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While Rosenwald’s charitable giving is important, it was the efforts of the black recipients of that aid that was truly inspiring. Rosenwald stipulated that his contributions had to be matched by the communities the schools were built to serve. People could give money but also land, materials, or labor. By the end of the Rosenwald school-building program, citizens that the schools were built to serve had donated slightly more than the $4,364,869 donated by Rosenwald, contributions all the more remarkable in light of the dire circumstances in which so many of them lived and the boll-weevil infestation that crippled cotton production in the South from World War I through the 1920s.

Despite difficult circumstances, people in many communities came together around the shared goal of creating a modern, well-built schoolhouse. They organized “educational rallies” where speakers might include a local pastor or teacher and a representative of the Rosenwald Fund. A handbill from one such event in 1918 lists names of donors and shows their contributions ranging from $1.50 to $32.50. It reminds the community, “Our slogan is $300.” Historian Mary Hoffschwelle recounts in her history of Rosenwald schools that in some places women organized and challenged the men to raise as much as they did. There were “old-time picnics” and fish fries with contributions of salads and cakes to be sold. In Gallatin, Tenn., local women made and raffled off a quilt to bring in donations.

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And the donations were not only financial. In Prince George’s County, Md., a farmer named Mary Ridgeley donated two acres of land in 1926 for the creation of a school. The following year, when it opened, her daughter Mattie was the teacher, and the younger of Mary’s 13 children were among the students. One of them, Mildred, returned later as a teacher and then as the wife of the principal. In 2012, when a restored Ridgeley Rosenwald School was reopened as a meeting venue and small museum, 90-year-old Mildred Ridgeley Gray was among those celebrating.

These and other stories of the extraordinary resilience of black communities when faced with harsh conditions bear revisiting today as we grapple with renewed outrage at ongoing issues of equality and equity. African Americans have a proven track record of achievement and individual success. Recently, the KIPP Foundation — a national network of 255 highly successful charter schools — dropped its signature slogan, “Work Hard. Be Nice,” citing three reasons: (1) It won’t dismantle systemic racism, (2) it suggests being compliant and submissive, and (3) it supports the illusion of meritocracy. But the suggestion that individuals cannot overcome roadblocks does a service to no one and in no way diminishes our ongoing national project of living up to our oft-stated ideals. We should learn from the Rosenwald communities that, like others, black Americans have resilience, an ability to overcome significant obstacles, and that individual initiative should be supported, encouraged, and celebrated as much as possible.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and the author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Robert Cherry is an economist and the author of Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture.

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