Not all of us would recognize the name Julius Rosenwald, but most of us would recognize Sears, Roebuck and Company, the company Julius Rosenwald served as president.
However, Mr. Rosenwald did much more than help to provide our garages with tools. Working with Booker T. Washington, a famous educator of the late 19th century, he obtained financial support and helped build over 5,000 schools in underprivileged, primarily African-American, areas of the South in the early 20th century. Along with Paul Sachs of Goldman Sachs, Rosenwald realized the plight of many children who would otherwise remain undereducated if something were not done, and they began the initiative to build schools beginning in Alabama in 1912, and then continued from Maryland to Texas into 15 Southern states. Not only would these serve as schoolhouses, but also as community centers where rural families could gather together to improve culture.
They had the support of President Theodore Roosevelt and investors such as Andrew Carnegie, along with the local communities behind them. In order to contribute, many communities would even host “box parties” where they would prepare and sell boxed lunches. Establishing the Rosenwald Fund in 1917, Julius Rosenwald helped donate over 70 million dollars to schools, universities, museums, individuals and other charities until 1948. Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man, was one such recipient.
While most of the schools are no longer in use, many communities have recognized the historic importance of these structures and embarked on a mission to preserve the symbols of dedication to education. From a time where children were anxious to go to school, often finishing chores such as milking cows or picking their share of the crops before attending, these monuments are a precious and rare reminder of just how valuable education is.
Many of the buildings still exist in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Living in Memphis for many years, I wasn’t far from the Braden-Sinai schoolhouse. Built in 1921 for only $4,400, this building, characterized by the look of many similar schoolhouses of the period, stands simply, with walls of windows that provided light to the students in a day where electricity would have not been available in rural areas.
Mr. Rosenwald would seldom take recognition, even discouraging most of the schools from bearing his name, but his work lives on through the legacy of many students who were educated because of his commitment to communities around the South. Today, individuals and corporations, including Lowe’s, are working toward restoring many of these buildings. Students at Auburn University’s Design-Build Master’s program are working at restoring schools in Alabama and the National Preservation Conference in Nashville last year dedicated a session and a local tour to the Rosenwald Schools. Explore more about the preservation efforts at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Perhaps there’s a community effort in your local area to save a school. Get involved!