The Schools that Rosenwald Built
Remarks by Norman H. Finkelstein
UConn Co-Op Bookstore
University of Connecticut, March 31, 2014
When people ask me what I do, my response is, “I fill holes.” If you know who my reading audience is, you will understand. Most of my books are geared toward young adult readers. This is the age group that doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. So, I try to fill holes in their knowledge of history and culture. My books are on an eclectic mix of subjects, from a cultural history of plastics to biographies of Edward R. Murrow and Theodor Herzl: from the golden age of radio to the good old days of the 1950s. As I research and write on a new subject, I think I learn as much, if not more, than my intended readers. And such was the case with Schools of Hope.
I first learned of Julius Rosenwald about fifteen years ago when working on a book on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement. I, historian and teacher, had never heard of him. What moved me at the time was his commitment to educating African American children in the South in the early decades of the twentieth century. I knew then that I not only wanted to write a book about him but to learn more about his life, the schools he helped establish and the people who benefited from his generosity. The result, years later, is Schools of Hope.
So, who was Julius Rosenwald? The son of Jewish-German immigrants born in 1864, he grew up in a middle class home. Like other young men of his generation, he never finished high school but was apprenticed to uncles in the men’s clothing business. He was a quick learner and eventually established his own clothing firms ultimately landing in Chicago. His customers included Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck who were establishing their iconic mail order business. He was invited into the business and thirteen years later when both Sears and Roebuck had left, Julius Rosenwald became the president and CEO. He was an innovator and sales grew. His business model was simple, “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.”
Rosenwald was greatly influenced by Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicaago’s Temple Sinai who forcefully urged congregants to share their wealth with those in need. Rosenwald recalled, “Never once in all that time have I left the Temple without feeling that I had carried away some helpful or inspiring lesson which would not have come to me except for having placed myself under such an influence.” Rosenwald began supporting local Chicago charities, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
He became aware of the YMCA movement and supported the building of a Y near the Sears plant for his employees - his white employees, of course, since separation of the races at the time was often a given. When the Y movement began investigating the building of separate YMCAs for African Americans, Rosenwald made an incredible offer. He would donate $25,000 to any community in America that could raise $75,000 from white and black donors to build a black Y. In the end, twenty-five such Ys were built around the country, including one in Chicago. At a 1911 Chicago meeting where announcement of the black Y was made, Rosenwald told the audience, “It startled me, when I, a Jew, was asked for money to promote the Christian religion but I thought as long as I was going to give money to Africans I would give it here where we have many Negro citizens, instead of to foreign missions.”
A year earlier, a friend had given him a copy of Booker T. Washington’s book, Up From Slavery. Washington’s philosophy of self-help appealed to Rosenwald. He agreed with Washington that the only way to improve the lives of African Americans was through schooling, particularly in the trades. When Booker T. Washington came to Chicago to deliver a speech , Rosenwald hosted a luncheon in his honor at the Blackstone Hotel, the first time the hotel had entertained an African American. The friendship between the two men was cemented. In future trips to Chicago, Washington stayed in the Rosenwald home. Five months later, Rosenwald, and a party of friends, including Rabbi Hirsch, traveled by train to Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
In 1912, in honor of his fiftieth birthday, Rosenwald gave a number of gifts to institutions he supported. $25,000 went to the Tuskegee Institute. Booker T. Washington asked if a portion of that money could be used to build several elementary schools near Tuskegee. Washington had long been concerned about the terrible state of education for young blacks. “The schools are like stables,” he said. This was the beginning of a project that twenty years later would result in over 5300 schools built throughout the South for African American children.
The first schools were designed and built under the supervision of Tuskegee Institute staff. After Booker T. Washington’s sudden death in 1915, the Tuskegee staff became overwhelmed. Rosenwald himself assumed responsibility for the school projects from Tuskegee and began instituting stricter requirements. To better oversee the quickly growing schools projects he established the Julius Rosenwald Fund “for the well-being of mankind.”
New building designs were created as the Rosenwald Fund developed strict specifications impacting all aspects of the building process. Before receiving a Rosenwald grant each community had to raise an equal amount of money either in cash or work equity. Rosenwald strongly believed that, by participating in raising money,everyone would feel a sense of pride and ownership. Rosenwald urged white public officials to become involved and schools were required to stay open at least five months a year.
As African Americans began to realize that a new school in their own community could now become a reality, they set to work, sometimes quite imaginativel,y to raise money. They sold their tiny surpluses wherever they could – a few eggs here, a hen there, a bit of their corn crops. In other places, farmers set aside parts of their fields, which became known as “Rosenwald Patches” and contributed to their school-building fund from the crops grown on those patches.
The new schools, built to exacting Rosenwald Fund specifications, were clean, inviting and bright – vast improvements from the ramshackle buildings they replaced. In some schools, a portrait of Julius Rosenwald - much to his chagrin - welcomed students. Despite his wish not to be recognized, all the schools he helped build, even those named after others, were simply referred to as Rosenwald schools.
Julius Rosenwald died in 1932. The Fund which he established is credited with building over 5300 schools. While the schools program was the center of its activities, the Fund also established public library and health programs and granted fellowships to talented black artists, writers and educators. One recipient of a Rosenwald Fellowship was noted writer James Weldon Johnson who memorialized Rosenwald by saying
“Julius Rosenwald used his brains in disposing of money. Had he used them only in acquiring it, we should not be gathered here.” Rosenwald was an unusual philanthropist. He did not fully fund projects but expected recipients of his gifts to contribute. He also did not want his money carried over to future generations. His will specifically directed the Rosenwald Fund to spend all its money within twenty-five years of his death. The Fund went out of business in 1948.
The last Rosenwald school was built in the year Rosenwald died. It is estimated that over the years the schools provided an education – and hope for a better life –to over 600,000 African American children. With the advent of the Civil Rights era, many existing Rosenwald schools were either incorporated into local white schools or abandoned. But memories of those schools remained. Today, throughout the South, Rosenwald alumni and their families have erected historical markers, arranged frequent reunions and united to save the original school buildings that survived. Thanks to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, dozens of former schools are being rehabilitated as museums and senior citizen centers. One former student said, “As long as you have somebody to tell about it, the history won’t be lost.” Another remembered, “Your creativity was encouraged. You could express yourself and be yourself…In an era of Jim Crow and segregation I feel I got a good education.”
For more than six hundred thousand African American children, the Rosenwald schools offered hope and an escape from poverty at time of extreme discrimination and segrgation. Even when the building program ended, the existing Rosenwald schools continued to provide education to black children for decades. Charles Morgan Jr, a noted civil rights lawyer, reflected on the role played by Rosenwald school graduates in the fight for equality. “From those schools came the parents of the generation who marched and sang and risked their lives in the revolution for equal justice under the law.”
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The book launch at the University of Connecticut was sponsored by the UConn Co-Op Bookstore, the African American Institute, the Judaic Studies Department and the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection.
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Schools of Hope: How Julius Rosenwald Helped Change African American Education is published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press.