Meridian Star


February 24, 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

MERIDIAN — Building schools

for African-American children

    Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co., was born Aug. 12, 1862, Springfield, Illinois and died Jan. 06, 1932.  

    Julius Rosenwald was raised by spiritual guidelines that included the Ten Commandments and other faith driven rules that emphasized the importance of life in community. He learned at an early age that no law is more important than the injunction to practice charity — to act justly, to be fair in all business and private dealings. He firmly believed helping others to become self-sufficient so they would not need further assistance was considered one of the most blessed forms of giving. Booker T. Washington, the unjustly much maligned black leader in the early twentieth century, shared the same convictions in the principle of teaching people with little or no education to become independent.

    Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington formed a partnership to build model schools for black children in the South during the Jim Crow era. One of Washington’s many goals for rural southern African Americans was to provide black children with safe, purpose-built school buildings. At the time, most public rural black schools were dilapidated structures with makeshift desks and benches.     Many southern counties provided few or no public school buildings for African Americans, the children learned in churches, lodge halls and anywhere they could gather together to be taught. B.T. Washington’s original plan was to organize black schools patrons to buy land and build schools.

    These schools would feature a Tuskegee style industrial curriculum combining basic literacy and mathematical skills with agricultural and trade programs for boys and home economics study for girls. The black people in Tuskegee could not afford to tackle these projects without some kind of additional financial support.   

    Rather than waste his time demanding a just share of public school funds from the local and state governments, Washington turned to Julius Rosenwald, who had recently joined the Tuskegee Institute board of trustees. Washington approached Mr. Rosenwald in September 1912 concerning his dream to build rural schools after receiving a gift of $25,000 for Tuskegee Institute from him.

    Finding $2,800 left over after all of Tuskegee’s obligations had been satisfied, Mr. Washington asked Rosenwald’s permission to use the remainder to build rural public schools for the area’s black children. Julius Rosenwald was elated with the idea.

    There were six original Rosenwald schools built in Alabama. In the initial Rosenwald gift each school received approximately $300 towards construction costs, which allowed school children and teachers to move out of the churches and lodge halls. Rosenwald’s next step was a $30,000 gift in 1914 for construction of 100 rural schools all over the south, including Mississippi, followed by gifts for up to 200 additional schools in 1916.

    By 1928, one in every five schools for black students in the South was a Rosenwald school. These schools housed one third of the region’s rural black school children and teachers. Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald saw the building program as an incentive for southern states to meet their responsibility for decent public schools for black children.

    At the program’s conclusion in 1932, it had produced approximately 5,300 schools, including teacher’s homes and shop buildings. The total cost was an estimated $28,500,000 which served close to 700,000 students in 883 counties in 15 states. Scores of these schools remain today, as they were designed for maximum efficiency, space for learning, and serving as a cultural and social center of African American communities.

    The Rosenwald School Project also contributed to architecture, continuity of communities, and helped formalized a state education program that would one day include all children. If you have an interest in visiting a Rosenwald school, Dennis Dahmer, the son of slain civil rights leader, Vernon Dahmer, is refurbishing a Rosenwald school building in Eatonville off of Monroe Road. It is a beautiful building with a wealth of history.

    References:  "You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South" by Stephanie Deutsch;

"Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South" by Peter M. Ascoli; "Dear Mr. Rosenwald " by Carole Boston Weatherford: "The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935" by James D. Anderson.

Coach J Ted Williams,


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