Thursday, August 17, 2017  

The Rosenwald Schools
And Their Early-Twentieth Century Contemporary Elementary Schoolhouses  


“The late Mr. Julius Rosenwald was, undoubtably, the
greatest friend that the South has ever had in the
development of education for the Negroes.”

—Sidney B. Hall, Superintendent of Schools
Commonwealth of Virginia,
March 3, 1933


I realize from the very beginning that my first two questions will launch me into perilous waters, where I’ll be found awaiting rescue from the tidal wave of your responses, “That’s none of your business.” But, here are the questions anyway:
  • How old are you?
  • Were you born in an era that would have put you in elementary school between the years 1917 and 1932?

Wait, not so fast! To those who answered “no” to question number two, don’t stop reading yet! There is a note in here for you, too.

If you answered “yes” to question number two, then, go on to the next battery of questions. Pull out your thinking cap; put it on and think waaay back:

  • Did you have the opportunity and pleasure of receiving a formal education in a classroom setting in a schoolhouse? (Not everyone did).
  • If you did, do you remember the building where you learned your 1,2,3s and your A, B, Cs?
  • Was it a building containing one, two, three, four, or maybe, up to six classrooms?
  • Was the schoolhouse located on a site of a minimum of two acres…near a church…in a rural area?
  • Was the building a white frame structure with a lot of windows to supply adequate natural lighting and ventilation? Was there a wood-burning stove in each classroom?
  • Were the walls colored cheerfully bright?
  • Was there literally a “black” board affixed to the wall in each classroom? A two-seated desk with an inkwell for pupils in upper grades?
  • Did the building have a moveable partition (wall) that could be raised or pushed to a side to combine the spaces of two adjacent classrooms thus converting the classrooms into a large auditorium with space enough to accommodate large gatherings, such as the school’s league meetings, Christmas programs, chitterling, pig feet, and/or chicken dinners or other activities to raise funds for the building?
  • Was there a well (artesian) from which water could be pumped for drinking and washing hands?
  • Was there a shop room for industrial art classes?
  • An outhouse built to specifications was a must. Do you remember it?
  • n    Are you an African-American who grew up in a southern state of the United States of America? (If you are not, don’t stop reading yet! There is something in here for you too).

If you answered “yes” to each of the preceding questions, and if you attended elementary school between the years 1917 and 1932, it is very possible that the elementary school you attended was a “new” Rosenwald School. And, a note to those who answered “no” to question number 2, it is also possible that you, too, attended a Rosenwald School because many of those previously “new” schools were still in use at the time of schools’ desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s —decades later. Matters indicated in the preceding listing of questions exemplify the many stipulations that were required in the construction of a Rosenwald School.

There were more than 5,000 new Rosenwald Schools built in 15 southern states between 1917, when the Rosenwald Foundation was established, and 1932, the year when the last Rosenwald School was constructed. In the state of Virginia alone, there were 371 Rosenwald Schools located in 79 of the 95 counties across the state of Virginia during that time. Some of those counties were far and wide. However, bringing it closer home, Rosenwald Schools have been identified in Middlesex, Westmoreland, Northumberland, and Essex counties. Undoubtedly, there were some in other surrounding counties of the area that have not been identified for this writing. And, wherever a Rosenwald School was located, it most likely was a replacement for a previous crude, dilapidated, contemporary school in the area—an effort by the black church community to educate their children with no help from the local school board. One, two, three, and four room schoolhouses— contemporaries of the Rosenwald Schools —were commonplace in all counties of the Northern Neck, and Southside of the Rappahannock River.

In Middlesex County, the former Shiloh Elementary School, located in the Jamaica Magisterial district of the county, was constructed in 1921, according to the available original copy of the building contract dated the 11th day of June of that year. It was a Rosenwald School that replaced the second of two earlier crude schoolhouses that had preceded it at different intervals of time, and were located on different sites. Also, according to an available copy of the history of the school given by the Recording Secretary/Historian, Deacon Howard G. Hill, Sr., patrons of the school celebrated its 16th anniversary in January 1938. On that occasion, the recording secretary/historian, in citing its history, stated that teachers and pupils initially entered their new Rosenwald School for classes in January, 1922. It is also learned from the Recording Secretary/Historian Howard G. Hill’s available minutes commencing with the year 1919 (ninety-two years ago) that the school’s parent-teacher’s business organization styled their organization “The Rosenwald School League” in honor of the philanthropist who was the benefactor of the school. Those minutes were recorded two years after the Rosenwald Foundation was established, in 1917. Those same “Rosenwald School League” minutes have been in safe keeping since that time, first by the former secretary/historian, and since his death in 1967, by his daughter—the writer of this article.

Some years succeeding the desegregation of schools in Middlesex County, Shiloh School’s property was purchased by the Union Shiloh Baptist Church, which sets on an adjacent lot. The former schoolhouse now serves as the church’s fellowship hall. In a copy of the written history of the church, compiled under the pastorate of the current pastor, Frederick Young, it is stated, “Julius Rosenwald of the Friends of Colored Schools, in the South, contributed funds (for the construction of the school) which were matched by the church and community.” The former schoolhouse is meticulously maintained by the church’s officials and is the only known Rosenwald School still standing in the county and is one of only a few 1–4 room schoolhouses still standing anywhere in immaculate condition. It is a perfect model for anyone wishing to be reminded or to learn what the inside of a four-room Rosenwald School looked like.

In Westmoreland County in the Northern Neck, author Cassandra Burton, in her book African-American Education in Westmoreland County, identified five Rosenwald Schools that were there. Three of them were namely: Templemans School, the second Erica School—indicating a replacement for the first school by the same name, and the second Kremlin School, also indicating a replacement for a first school by the same name. The fourth Rosenwald School was located in the Frog Hall area, and the fifth Rosenwald School in the Cople District area—neither identified by a specific name. An interesting note is given by Mrs. Burton for each of the schools including the fact that the former Kremlin Rosenwald Schoolhouse was salvaged and remodeled, and today is being used as a community center by a church. She also notes that some of the contemporary schoolhouses were purchased and restored as homes.

From the internet, it is learned that in the year 2007, the “Rosenwald High School Alumni” of Northumberland County received a discretionary grant to support a public event, including a lecture focusing on the history of Rosenwald Schools in the Northern Neck. The alumni schools are not noted.

In Essex County, it is learned from the internet, there were three Rosenwald Schools. They were Beulah School, located at Minor, another school in Ozeana, and still another school in Center Cross. A complete listing of “Colored Schools” in Essex County, obtained from the Library of Virginia in Richmond, enumerates a total of twenty-eight schoolhouses beginning in the late 19th century into the mid-twentieth century. That total included the three Rosenwald Schools mentioned above and their twenty-five contemporaries which included the Good Hope School in Dunnsville, and the Antioch School in Champlain, each of which is pictured herein. Structurally, the design of those contemporary schools was somewhat similar to that of the Rosenwald Schools.

Thus, at this point, it should be reemphasized that not every school that might have fitted the descriptions numerated earlier in the text (which were among many other specifications and regulations of a Rosenwald School) was a Rosenwald School. Matter-of-factly, authoritative information has it that the Rosenwald Schools were so popular in design, and were so soundly built, and were so well liked by the white community, that even the school boards in many localities throughout the south copied the design of the Rosenwald Schools in the construction of many contemporary schoolhouses for white pupils. Thus, a note to those who answered “no” to the question, “Are you an African American who grew up in a southern state of America?” You may have attended an elementary school that was patterned after a Rosenwald School in structural design.

Contemporary schools have been referred to frequently in this text. What, exactly, were they like? And what was a Rosenwald School?

For those who were the beneficiaries of the Rosenwald Schools, contemporary schools of the era throughout the south, were (maybe not all, but largely) humble, shanty-type frame or log buildings, established and maintained by patrons of the school community who were largely impoverished, and of meager financial means. And they had little or no help from the local school board, or elsewhere. Those schools may have been set up long before the Rosenwald School movement, but were still in use at the same time.

Rosenwald Schools were schools that were born out of an early 20th century school movement, whereby wealthy philanthropist Julius Rosenwald offered to any rural community in a southern state of America, the opportunity to raise funds of which he would match to build school houses for Negro (African American) children. These Rosenwald schools often replaced the contemporary school as described in the preceding paragraph.

From the era of the Rosenwald Schools existence, beginning in the early 20th century when they were functional, until the era of this present day when the legacy and memory of those schools are being reclaimed and revived, the significant role that the Rosenwald Schools played, while they were on stage, has been proclaimed and lauded. Some voices of praise from each era can be heard through the authoritative quotes that follow:

“The Rosenwald Foundation, founded by Julius Rosenwald, the generous Chicago philanthropist, has given $11,100 to build Negro schools. I feel that I voice the sentiment of all of our people, both white and colored, in thanking Mr. Rosenwald for this most generous gift, which he will almost certainly duplicate and increase in future years.”
“By 1920, the Rosenwald Fund had established a systematic plan of subsidizing amounts ranging from $500.00 to $1,600 to schools of 1–6 rooms respectively, provided the school lot contained a minimum of two acres of ground and buildings conformed to standard plans and specifications.”
Speaker: R. C. Stearnes, the second superintendent of schools, Commonwealth
of Virginia. From his 1916-1917 annual school report.
Reference: Buck, J.L. Blair, The Development of Public Schools in Virginia, 1607-1952.
“Across the country, school children have been studying Black history during “Black History Month” but many Americans know very little about a group of schools that educated hundreds of thousands of Black children.”
“Some people criticized the school building program along with Booker T. Washington’s ideas, for accommodating the segregated status quo. But…Rosenwald Schools played a key role in educating generations of Black children.”
Speaker: Marian Wright Elderman, President of The Children Defense Fund
Source: Article, “Reclaiming the Legacy”; posted February 22, 2010, The Internet
“The Rosenwald Fund provided architectural models of school houses to communities…”
“This attention to detail, significantly, increased the quality of African American schoolhouses during the era of segregation, when white school board officials often siphoned off monies leaving little or nothing for Black schools.”
Source: Article, “The Rosenwald Schools of Virginia,” The Internet
“Despite support from the Rosenwald Fund, Black schools across the South were rarely the equal of their white counter parts. Nevertheless, the Rosenwald School Building Program enabled many blacks to acquire an education, that might otherwise never have been attained.”
Speaker: Tom Belton; Curator, the North Carolina Museum of History
Source: Article, “Rosenwald Schools of North Carolina,”  The Internet

Thus, putting it all in perspective on a timeline of one hundred years, what has happened in the history of the Rosenwald Schools? Firstly, in the year 1911, a staunch advocator of education, Dr. Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, and a staunch philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck and Company and a sympathizer of the plight of education for African American children in the southern states of America, met for the first time. There was an instant meeting of the minds of the two men on the subject of what education should be like for everyone in America. Thus, like the sun rising above the horizon, a bright light was cast like a ray of sunshine over an area that had been steeped only in a dark cloud of doom and gloom—education for African American children in the south.

Thus, in 1932, twenty-one years after the men’s first meeting, more than 5,000 schoolhouses had been built. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of lives had been touched positively. The schoolhouses played their role on the stage of education for decades, but sadly, through succeeding years, most of them succumbed to abandonment, neglect, demolishment, and forgottenness.

However, in the current year 2011, one hundred years since the first meeting of Mr. Washington and Mr. Rosenwald, the legacy of the Rosenwald Schools is being reclaimed in many ways including publicity in magazine articles, the awarding of grants for research, grants for Rosenwald Schools’ reunions, and more. From the research, it is reported that there are still a limited number of the Rosenwald Schools still being used for some form of educational purpose. Also, research revealed that some of the former schools were bought and renovated as homes, community centers, health care facilities, or as church fellowship halls, as in the case of the nearby former Shiloh Elementary School in Middlesex County.

By Lillian H. McGuire, A Product of a Rosenwald School

Julius Rosenwald was born August 12, 1862 in Springfield, Illinois to parents Samuel Rosenwald and Augusta Hammerslough Rosenwald. His father, a clothier, was a German-Jewish immigrant. Julius Rosenwald had a younger brother. In 1890, Julius Rosenwald married Augusta Nusbaum, whose family was also in a clothing business. Together, they had five children.

As a businessman, Julius Rosenwald’s first endeavor was a venture with his younger brother and a male cousin in a clothing business, and their company became the principal supplier of men’s clothing to Sears, Roebuck and Company, owned by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck. In time, Roebuck left the company because of ill health, and Julius Rosenwald and his wife’s brother bought Roebuck’s half of the company in partnership with Sears, who was the president. Still later, because of declining health, Sears resigned as president of the company and Julius Rosenwald, a partner in the business, was named to serve as president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The year was 1908. His takeover as president succeeded his tenure as vice president/treasurer and a track record of savvy business strategies which took Sears and Roebuck to the top. As well, Julius Rosenwald amassed a personal fortune.

As a philanthropist, Rosenwald began by supporting a wide range of causes giving matching funds to small establishments. This later expanded to the extent that he greatly subsidized a Jewish charity and still later became the founder and backer of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, among other ventures.

During the course of time, Philanthropist Rosenwald read the autobiography of Dr. Booker T. Washington, the president of Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The book was titled Up From Slavery. It is said that Rosenwald was struck by Washington’s words in a passage, which reads in part:

“My experience is that there is something in human nature that always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what color of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that it is the visible, the tangible that goes a long way in softening prejudices…”

It was upon reading those words that Rosenwald began to sympathize with the plight of education for Negroes in the South, and he was stirred to action, thus making the decision to put the cause of Negro education his top priority.

In the year 1911 (one hundred years ago this year) Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald met the author of the book that stirred him to action, Dr. “Booker” T. Washington. It was their first meeting. Soon, Rosenwald became a trustee of Tuskegee Institute and, thus, a major donor. Dr. Washington, a devoted advocate of education, persuaded Philanthropist Rosenwald that help was needed not just with higher education, but also elementary education throughout the south was in dire need of help, including the need for schoolhouses.

In the year 1912, Rosenwald gave Washington permission to use some of the money he had donated to Tuskegee Institute to build six small elementary schoolhouses in Alabama. The first schools were opened in the year 1913, and in 1914, the remainder of the six schools opened, thus becoming the first Rosenwald Schools in America’s south.

In 1917, extremely pleased with the success of the first six schools, Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Fund, a Chicago based Philanthropic Foundation, which would produce more than 5,000 schools by 1932 when the movement ended. North Carolina, with 787 schools, had more than any other state.

Initially, the Rosenwald program was administered by Tuskegee Institute. As the demands sky-rocketed, and with the death of Dr. Washington in 1915, Rosenwald set up a “southern office” in Nashville, Tennessee administered by an experienced businessman. This was in conjunction with the Chicago Headquarters Office.

Mr. Rosenwald died January 6, 1932. Little more than a year later, March 3, 1933, a mandatory “Rosenwald Schools Observance Day” was celebrated, in recognition of the impact Julius Rosenwald left on America’s African American education.