Rosenwald Schools: The Extraordinary Partnership that Catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement
Photographs & Stories by Andrew Feiler
Julius Rosenwald (pictured to the left) led Sears, Roebuck & Company from the late 1890s until his death in 1932. When Sears became a public company in the early 1900s, Rosenwald became extraordinary wealthy and became one of the earliest and greatest philanthropists in American history. His cause was civil rights. Partnering with Booker T. Washington, the head of the historically black college then known as Tuskegee Institute, they created a program that became known as Rosenwald schools. From 1912 to 1937, this extraordinary endeavor built 4,978 schools for African Americans across fifteen Southern and border states. For several generations these schools were the backbone of education for African Americans. Rosenwald schools thus created an essential foundation upon which the Civil Rights Movement could rise in the 1950s and 1960s.
Coming out of the era of slavery, the highest priority for integrating African Americans into the broader fabric of America was education. While there were fitful initiatives during Reconstruction, institutionalized segregation left public schooling for African Americans chronically and intentionally deprived. Prior to the Rosenwald school building program, many communities had no schools for African Americans. Those that did offered shacks and other woefully inadequate facilities with only a tiny fraction of the funding provided for educating white children. African Americans often created their own essentially private schools in churches and other community locations, but these efforts were spotty as it was a heavy burden for poor communities to fund private education.
Booker T. Washington
Beyond the marvel of an African American educator and a Jewish businessman collaborating in the opening decades of the twentieth century, the program created by Washington and Rosenwald was extraordinarily sophisticated. Both men believed in self-help and felt it was essential for the black community to be invested in their school if it was to succeed. As such, the Rosenwald essentially offered challenge grants. If the African American community would raise funds, which could include donations of land, materials and even labor, then Rosenwald would make a substantial contribution toward the construction of the schoolhouse.
Wynnton Hill/Radcliff School in Columbus, GA
But these were not the only constraints. These men understood the complex dynamic of race in the South and knew that it was essential to foster cooperation between blacks and whites. In order to receive a Rosenwald grant, the local white school board had to agree to maintain the school building and to pay the teacher salaries. Over time, these arrangements even led to public investment in many Rosenwald schools. Beyond creating generations of educated African American citizens, these working relationships bridged black and white and became critical building blocks of the Civil Rights Movement.
Of the original 4,978 Rosenwald schools, about ten percent are believed to survive. Some of them have been adapted into a variety of new uses; many remain unrestored and at risk of collapse, and a small handful remain active schools. To date, I have shot 82 schools in eleven states. Eventually I will shoot in all fifteen states in which the program existed. My work includes images of interiors and exteriors, schools restored and yet-to-be restored, and portraits of people with unique connections to these stories.
Andrew Feiler's photo-documentary on Rosenwald School's is called A Better Life for Their Children.