(The following is a story written by Daniel De Simone, curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, for the September-October 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. You can download the issue in its entirety here.)
The year 1912 was a pivotal one for African American educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932). The two men were acquainted, with Washington as the founder and principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for the training of black teachers (now Tuskegee University) and Rosenwald serving as a member of the school’s Board of Trustees.
That year, Washington had the idea to build schools for African American children throughout the rural South. “Separate but equal” was the law of the land, but black children were learning in underfunded and dilapidated buildings across the South. Why not replicate the success of Tuskegee by providing the necessary academic skills in clean, well-lit modern structures for students on the K-12 level? For funding, he turned first to Tuskegee’s benefactors.
Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., was approaching his 50th birthday and had decided to celebrate by donating funds to various causes. He shared Washington’s concern about the lack of educational resources for black children in the South. He had already launched a program to offer matching grants for the construction of African American YMCAs and was interested in Washington’s plans to do the same for schools.
In a letter to Washington dated July 15, 1912, Rosenwald offered to help.
“If you had $25,000 to distribute among institutions which were offshoots of Tuskegee or doing similar works to Tuskegee, how would you divide it?”
Washington replied five days later in a long and heartfelt letter.
“I shall be very glad to send you recommendations and opinions regarding the use of $25,000 in helping institutions. … Such a sum of money will prove a Godsend to those institutions and can be made to accomplish much more good just now than any one realizes. I think I am not stating it too strongly when I say that a wise expenditure of such a sum of money will enable these schools to do fifty or one hundred percent better work than they are now doing.”
Rosenwald requested from Washington a list of schools that “in your judgment should participate, naming the amount for each and the purpose for which the money is to be used … and as soon as any school you name has raised an equal amount, I will pay to it such an amount as you have designated.”
Both men shared a belief in the importance of self-reliance. So it is not surprising that the plan called for monies from the Rosenwald Fund to be matched by the African American community. The call was met and exceeded.
Washington pushed the concept further by suggesting that “the people themselves build the [school] houses…” The design for the Rosenwald Schools was simple – a two-room schoolhouse with plenty of windows to aid in lighting and ventilation. Their modern construction stood as a symbol of black aspiration and potential.
After Washington’s death in 1915, Margaret Murray Washington continued to work with Rosenwald in her late husband’s stead. At the program’s conclusion in 1932, it had produced 4,977 new schools, 217 teachers’ homes, and 163 shop buildings. It is estimated that the schools served more than 663,000 students in 883 counties in 15 states.
Following the 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring racial segregation unconstitutional, the Rosenwald Schools became obsolete. Many of the structures were repurposed to serve other community functions while others were abandoned. In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Rosenwald Schools to its list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places, and declared the building program as “one of the most important partnerships to advance African American education in the early 20th century.”