While talking with my cousin about details of our family genealogy, we discussed his attending a Rosenwald school in St. Landry parish. I was somewhat familiar with these schools since a fellow researcher told me about having attended one in another southern state where she grew up, but I was still woefully ignorant of their presence and impact, having grown up in Oakland, California where the schools were open to all. The establishment of Rosenwald schools in the time after Reconstruction was very important for the south’s children of color.
As Dr. Tom Hanchett, Staff Historian, says on the History South website (http://www.historysouth.org) “…rediscovering Rosenwald Schools, [is] one of the more amazing stories in the history of American education.” Education was in a sorry state for people of color in the south after 1900 and, although the colored population hungered for an education there were very few schools that could accommodate them. As we know, “separate but equal” was separate but certainly not equal.
In 1919 black ex-slave Booker T. Washington who headed the Tuskeegee Institute partnered with Julius Rosenwald
a northern, German-Jewish immigrant’s son who had joined a young, Sears Roebuck and Company in 1897. When the U.S. Post Office instituted the rural delivery of mail for free, Rosenwald helped seize this marketing opportunity and by 1909 he was CEO of the world’s largest retailer, thanks to its mail order catalogue.
Booker T. Washington’s vision of rural schools caught Rosenwald’s imagination. Together, the idea-man and the moneyman hammered out an early example of a now-common philanthropic tool: the matching grant. If a rural black community could scrape together a contribution, and if the white school board would agree to operate the facility, Rosenwald would contribute cash – usually about 1/5 of the total project. The aim was quietly radical, a Rosenwald Fund official later wrote; “not merely a series of schoolhouses, but … a community enterprise in cooperation between citizens and officials, white and colored.”
By 1932, when the construction grants ended, 5357 new buildings stood in 883 counties throughout fifteen Southern states. Most were schools, but workshops and teachers homes also occasionally received funding. Louisiana had 435 schools.
The schools came in all sizes from little one-teacher units all the way up to seven-teacher facilities that offered full instruction from first grade through high school.
The Rosenwald Fund provided state-of-the-art architectural plans. Two black architecture professors at Tuskeegee, Robert R. Taylor, Director of the Department of Mechanical Industries,
and W.A. Hazel of the Division of Architecture, drew the first set for a 1915 pamphlet The Negro Rural School and Its Relation to the Community. In 1920 Rosenwald official, Samuel L. Smith assumed the task. His Community School Plans patternbooks were eventually distributed by the Interstate School Building Service and reached thousands of communities far beyond the South.
Dr. Washington saw each school as a community center. Rosenwald’s buildings would not only teach the young, but would help dispersed rural people come together to improve farming techniques and forge a strong community culture. Families often built homes clustered around the schools, creating settlements that persist today. Consider all of the rural Creole/African American communities in the Gulf South that have been nurtured by these schools.
The National Trust named all of the South’s Rosenwald Schools to its “Eleven Most Endangered” list for 2002, putting preservation of these schools in the national spotlight but “Out of 5300 Rosenwald schools, we still only know the fate of a few dozen. The Trust is eager to help address this preservation challenge. These buildings represent an important part of America’s heritage,” said John Hildreth of The National Trust.
In Louisiana, the first Rosenwald school was constructed in 1916. Almost 400 were built in Louisiana by 1932, and one in four rural black schools in the state was a Rosenwald.
Only a tiny percentage of the schools still stand. When Kathe Hambrick-Jackson arranged for an old school building to be moved across the Mississippi River to Donaldsonville’s River Road African American Museum, she had no idea what a treasure she had.
Years ago, all she knew was that the St. James Parish school board was going to tear down the Central Agricultural Schoolhouse, which was also known as the Romeville School. It was “the cornerstone for educating African American children in St. James Parish” from the 1930s to the 1960s, so she got the board to donate it to the museum in 1996.
It was only after the building was placed in Donaldsonville that she realized it was a rare Rosenwald school. Before the Donaldsonville building was determined to be a Rosenwald, there was only one known to still exist in the state — Plaisance in St. Landry Parish (listed on the National Register of Historic Places August 23, 2004). Although it has been noted in this author’s research that a third school has now been identified I have been unsuccessful in finding out the name or location. If any of our readers know this information, please comment on this post.
Restorations of some of these treasures can be found at http://nationalregister.sc.gov/2009landmark/nthpresenwald.pdf
*Robert Robinson Taylor (1868 – 1942), architect and educator, was the first African American graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the first professionally educated black architect in the United States. Between 1903 and 1932, he designed the major structures of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and also Carnegie-funded libraries for two other black colleges in North Carolina and Texas. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, Taylor learned construction from his father, Henry Taylor, a former slave whose white father (and master) had permitted him to pursue an independent trade, but without emancipating him.
Sources: : historysouth.org; Southern Jewish Life, sjlmag.com, May 29, 2013; Preservation in Print, http://www.prcno.org/programs/preservationinprint/piparchives/2004%20PIP/December%202004/8.html, Dec 8, 2004; The Negro Rural School and Its Relation to the Community, books.google.com; Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington, Ellen Weiss, pg. IX