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Rosenwald Schools and the Quest to Provide Education for Black Children

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture will explore the quest to provide education for Black children in the segregated South.

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For Black school-age children in the early 1900s, publicly-funded education options were inadequate and, in many cases, nonexistent in the segregated South. To address this problem, Virginia-born educator Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald forged a visionary partnership to build Black schools across the segregated South. The Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) will explore the transformative impact of this program in the special exhibition “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America,” on view May 25, 2024-April 20, 2025.

“Julius Rosenwald Fund Schoolhouse Construction Map – Fisk University Archives,” © Andrew Feiler

Washington and Rosenwald’s collaboration marked one of the first between Black and Jewish Americans in the long fight for civil rights. It was also one of the most important initiatives advancing Black education in the Jim Crow South. As the president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the leading Black educator in America, Booker T. Washington developed the idea for building schools for underserved African American communities. In 1912, he teamed up with Julius Rosenwald — president of Sears Roebuck Company — to provide seed money for schools. The Rosenwald program required matching funds from local governments and Black communities to establish the schools. Despite significant hardships, Black families contributed money, land, building materials and labor to realize their dreams of providing educational opportunities for their children.

Between 1912 and 1937, the Rosenwald schools program created 4,978 schools, as well as shop buildings and teacher housing, for a total of 5,357 structures across 15 Southern states. The schools often were named after local places and individuals, but collectively were referred to as Rosenwald schools. These schools served more than 663,000 students — one-third of Black children in the region — employed thousands of teachers and in many locations, were the only schools that Black children could attend. In Virginia, 382 Rosenwald buildings were constructed in 86 counties between 1917 and 1932.

“Rosenwald schools had a profound impact on the nation,” said Karen Sherry, Ph.D., VMHC’s senior curator. “They increased Black literacy, prepared students for higher education and skilled professions and trained a generation of future civil rights leaders, including Maya Angelou, Medgar Evers, John Lewis and members of the Little Rock Nine. Yet, the important history of Rosenwald schools is not well-known since many of the structures were repurposed or fell into disuse and disrepair in the wake of school desegregation.”

When the Atlanta-based photographer Andrew Feiler learned of the Rosenwald story, he was inspired to embark on a three-year journey across the South to document the remaining school buildings and their alumni. This work formed the basis of an award-winning book and a traveling exhibition, “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America.”

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture exhibition “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America” features 26 of Andrew Feiler’s photographs and stories of Rosenwald schools across the South. The Museum is also supplementing Feiler’s exhibition with a section exploring the Rosenwald experience and legacy in Virginia. These Virginia-specific contents include oral histories with alumni, artifacts, a recreation of a classroom and additional resources. The VMHC has partnered with William & Mary’s Bray School Lab and with Rosenwald school community groups around the Commonwealth to showcase this inspiring story.

“Denbigh School – Warwick County, Virginia, about 1920–about 1950,” 2019 Archival pigment print, 20 x 30” © Andrew Feiler

 

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Richard Hayes is the co-founder of RVAHub. When he isn't rounding up neighborhood news, he's likely watching soccer or chasing down the latest and greatest board game.