Rosenwald schools, named for the philanthropist who provided the initial funding for what ended up being thousands of schools, represent an important aspect of the development of Black education in the rural South during the segregation era. Julius Rosenwald, through his generosity, helped stimulate opportunities for the education of African Americans that otherwise would not have been possible. Although occasionally criticized for being part of the “Tuskegee machine,” the Rosenwald schools clearly contributed to an improved quality of education for southern Blacks in small towns and communities where such options did not otherwise exist. This entry looks at their history and contributions.
The Initial Funding
Julius Rosenwald was the president of the catalog and department store chain Sears, Roebuck and Company from 1908 to 1922, and the chairman of the company’s board until his death in 1932. The son of German-Jewish immigrants, he was a classic example of a self-made man. As a successful Chicago clothier, he bought an interest in Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1895 and helped build it into a mail-order and merchandising giant.
In 1912, as part of a much larger philanthropic effort, Rosenwald gave $25,000 to the Tuskegee Institute. At the suggestion of Tuskegee’s president, Booker T. Washington, part of this money was used to build six schools in rural Alabama. Pleased with the result, in 1917, Rosenwald established a challenge grant program that led to the construction of nearly 5,000 schools throughout the rural South. Rosenwald hoped to build a school in every rural county in the South. By 1928, one in five schools for Black students in the South was a Rosenwald school. The schools provided space for more than 600,000 students. The program ended in 1932 with Rosenwald’s death.
A Community Effort
Rosenwald did not want his name attached to his charitable works. He was one of the founders of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, for example, but his name is not on the museum. Despite his reticence to be publicly recognized, the rural Black schools he funded eventually came to be known as Rosenwald schools. Rosenwald’s contributions did not completely pay for the schools. In fact, only about 15 percent of their costs were covered by him (Rosenwald contributed a total of $4.4 million of the $28 million that was spent on the building of the schools).
Instead, his contributions acted as a stimulus for local communities to use taxes to build new schools, as well as to raise their own funds generated through personal contributions. Fundraising events in the local Black community included chicken dinners and sandlot baseball games. Sharecropper farmers put aside part of their crop—creating “Rosenwald patches”—to contribute to the school fund. Children saved pennies in snuff boxes.
Rosenwald’s efforts were important in that they provided the means by which local communities could move beyond the ramshackle and inadequate school building structures that were typically provided for Black students during the segregation era. The Rosenwald schools were simply constructed, primarily wood frame buildings, but represented a significant improvement. Playground space, maximum use of light (East-West sighting of windows), and proper toilet facilities were all included as part of the designs. Few of the Rosenwald schools are still used today.
- Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1960–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Embree, E. R. (1936). Julius Rosenwald fund: Review of two decades, 1917–1936. Chicago: Julius Rosenwald Fund. Grant, D. (2003). Saving the Rosenwald schools: Preserving
- African American history. APF Reporter, 20(4). Available: http://www.aliciapatterson.org/APF2004/ Granat/Granat.html
- Rosenwald Schools (National Trust for Historical Preservation): http://www.rosenwaldschools.com/ history.html
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