The Rosenwald Schools

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Rosenwald School on Hilton Head, S.C.

Rosenwald School in Hilton Head, S.C.

This May I took a trip to Savannah, Georgia, and to the southern coast of South Carolina. In Savannah, I took a “Freedom Tour” that included visits to the oldest Black church, the black cemetery that contains a whip-scarred “whipping tree” against which slaves were secured to be whipped, and the Civil Rights Museum.

In South Carolina, I took a “Gullah Tour” on Hilton Head Island. Hilton Head is famous for its high-end resorts, beaches and golf courses. But it and some of the other nearby islands are also the historical and contemporary home of the Gullah people. These are people of African descent who are also known as Geechees, the word for their distinctive language. On this tour I went through the still-existing Gullah neighborhoods on Hilton Head and saw churches, the one beach where Blacks were permitted to swim when the other beaches were legally segregated, and the site of Mitchelville, a community established in 1862 for ex-slaves who had been freed by the Union army. But what really caught my attention was an old frame school house. The Gullah guide referred to it as a Rosenwald School, which had been established in the early 20th Century. The only thing that he said about the name Rosenwald was that he was a philanthropist who also was the head of Sears Roebuck at the time. The guide also said that this was only one of many Rosenwald schools that Julius Rosenwald had helped to create.

When I told my friend Education Professor Emeritus Walter Feinberg that I found this fascinating and wanted to learn more about it, he directed me to the 1988 book, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, written by Professor James Anderson, head of Educational Policy Studies at the U of I. Public i colleague Brian Dolinar directed me to the 2006 e-book by Peter Ascoli, entitled Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South.

So, what were these Rosenwald schools and how did they come to be?

Julius Rosenwald was a Jewish philanthropist who aided not only many Jewish charities and institutions, but also the downtown Chicago YMCA and several projects on the predominantly Black South Side of the city. He also sat on the Board of Tuskegee Institute, a Black primarily teachers’ training school of which Booker T. Washington was the principal. These two men developed a close relationship. Initially, Washington approached Rosenwald about financially helping to build six non-state elementary schools for Black children within the vicinity of Tuskegee. Rosenwald agreed to commit $25,000, but only on condition that an equal amount be raised locally. His justification for this was “the incentive will be great for others to give and the trustees of the various institutions will put forth work under such conditions that they would not be likely to do otherwise” (Ascoli, 130). Rosenwald insisted that prior to his commitment of funds, the equal amount had to have been raised locally.

At this time, the Southern states and counties were allocating very meager tax revenues for rural black primary education. James Anderson argues that Rosenwald’s stipulation of equal funding amounted to an unjust double taxation, because Blacks would have had taxes extracted from them for white schools from which they gained nothing, and now had to pay for their own schools. Ascoli grants that point, but also argues that some whites also made contributions and, more important, that it was the Rosenwald program, combined with Blacks fleeing the South to go north in the Great Migration, that convinced politicians in the southern states that if they wanted to keep the sharecroppers in the South they needed to provide more adequate funding for schools for sharecroppers’ children. Thus, Rosenwald’s logic for demanding the local contributions as a stimulus for other contributions to be forthcoming seemed to be validated as, according to Ascoli, more funds were eventually made available.

But to carry on with the history. After the six schools were up and running near Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington approached Rosenwald for a greater expansion of the program. Rosenwald liked the idea and brought in other prominent people in the media and social services, including Jane Addams who was heading Hull House in Chicago. Apparently these people did not make financial contributions, but did publicize it and lent their expertise to the project.

The expansion of the program proceeded in stages. First, it went beyond the confines of the area close to Tuskegee to several other counties in Alabama. Then it went beyond the state of Alabama. According to Ascoli, in some areas, such as Needmore, Church County, Alabama, there were relatively prosperous Blacks who made some substantial financial contributions. In many more instances, Blacks who were not in a position to make substantial financial contributions contributed small amounts of money or supplies and sweat labor to the construction process. But, again, James Anderson raises the critical question “Yet the traditions of double taxation and extraordinary sacrifice had distinct limits, beyond which they were both unjust and dangerous. One limit was the point at which ‘self-help’ became unconscious submission to oppression.” And, of course, this was the construction of a separate and unequal system of elementary schools that, consistent with Booker T. Washington’s and Tuskegee’s bent, taught vocational skillsbut also taught reading, writing and arithmetic.

The scope of the project was vast. According to Anderson, by 1926, 3,464 Rosenwald schools had been erected in the South. In 1932, more than a fourth of all Black children in that area were being taught in Rosenwald schools. By the termination of the building program in 1934, our Gullah guide estimated that there were approximately 5,000 such schools. In South Carolina, where I saw the Hilton Head school, Rosenwald schools were located in 95% of the counties.

It has been interesting to read these two accounts of the Rosenwald program. Ascoli focuses on the role of Rosenwald, the Chicago Jewish philanthropist who was a builder of one of the largest manufacturing/retailing companies in America but who turned his attention to the need for education of Blacks in the South. Anderson focuses on the pluses and the minuses of such philanthropy from the perspective of the Southern Blacks who paid taxes but still had to come up with the matching funds to build these segregated schools, which were certainly no match for the schools to which the children of more affluent whites had access. Ascoli grants Anderson’s point, but is more positive. While writing earlier than Ascoli, Anderson is more critical but also grants the positive. Perhaps the lesson is that emancipation from extreme oppression often occurs not in a revolutionary single stroke, but in stages where elements of the old oppression persist even as some progress is being made. But there is no assurance that history is a series of linear stages of progress. That wishful view is difficult to reconcile now with so many de facto segregated public schools and the school-to-prison pipeline for so many of our Black youths.

Rosenwald, a white man, and those Blacks who contributed money and labor to the project, cared about Black youths and acted on that caring. They deserve recognition today as important contributors in the history of this country.

[Errata: In my article on the sentencing of Katheryn Daly and Willie Craft in the July/August issue of the Public i, the length of the sentences for both should have read three and one half years, not three years.]

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