In the first part of the twentieth century, with Jim Crow in full effect in southern states, before there was any pretense of the equal in “separate but equal,” it was up to African-American communities to take on the responsibility of educating their children. (In the North, there was a pretense.) A half-century earlier, custom and law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write. Taxpayer funding for segregated public schools in the South mostly went to white kids; white schools received more than five times the per-student funding as black schools. (In Mississippi the ratio was thirteen to one.) African-American citizens paid taxes, but were effectively barred from voting.
A black educator and a Jewish business entrepreneur joined together to do something about it.
Booker T. Washington was the driving force behind Tuskegee University in Alabama. Born a slave, Washington was an effective fund-raiser for his educational projects. He labeled his hands-on self-help methods “industrial education.” He thought that with help from northern philanthropists his approach could transform public education.
Julius Rosenwald was born to German-immigrant parents. After a clothing business ended in bankruptcy, he became a major supplier to the fledgling mail-order company, Sears, Roebuck. He invested in the growing enterprise and later became its president, and then chairman. Rosenwald also became noted for his philanthropy. His Jewish heritage made him especially attuned to racial discrimination. Booker T. Washington recruited Rosenwald to serve on Tuskegee’s board of directors.
The two men addressed primary education with the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama in 1913 and 1914. Rosenwald provided the funds, Tuskegee the oversight.
Julius Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Fund in 1917. Unlike other foundations set up to operate in perpetuity, Rosenwald’s was designed to spend all its money. Seventy-million dollars went to schools, colleges, museums, Jewish charities and black institutions until the Rosenwald Fund was depleted in 1948.
Washington and Rosenwald implemented their matching grant program for schools serving black children in the rural South. If the local community could scrape together funds and help with construction, and the local white school board would agree to operate the school, Rosenwald would contribute money necessary for the project. The Tuskegee Institute provided building plans. As many areas lacked electricity, the buildings incorporated large windows; plans varied according to the compass direction the structures faced. A Rosenwald Fund official later wrote, “not merely a series of schoolhouses, but … a community enterprise in cooperation between citizens and officials, white and colored.”
The Washington-Rosenwald collaboration spent $4 million to build 4,977 schools, 217 teacher homes, and 163 shop buildings in 15 southern states. The Fund ended construction grants in 1932 but continued to provide fellowships to black scholars.
The official end to segregation in 1954, along with urbanization and other demographic changes, evolving styles of education and school-district consolidation effectively put an end to the program. Many of the buildings were abandoned and left to decay; others were demolished.
Of late, there have been efforts to preserve this heritage. In 2015 the National Trust for Historic Preservation classified the Rosenwald Schools as National Treasures. Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools Act of 2019 was introduced into the House of Representative on June 13, 2019. It was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources who twelve days later referred it to the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. The subcommittee held a hearing on October 29, and that’s the last anyone has heard.