The Unfortunate Lost History of Rosenwald Schools

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. 

 

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

In 1919 black ex-slave Booker T. Washington who headed the Tuskeegee Institute  partnered with Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald

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.

Rosenwald one teacher school plan

Rosenwald one teacher school plan

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,

Robert R. Taylor*

Robert R. Taylor*

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 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

Lenora Gobert

13 thoughts on “The Unfortunate Lost History of Rosenwald Schools

  1. Julius Rosenwald’sdaughter, Edith Rosenwald Stern, lived in New Orleans and continued her father’s philanthropy in the interest of black education. She and her husband were major benefactors of Dillard University. Along with the Rosenwald Fund, which funded building projects, the Anna Jeanes Fund, provided for teacher training and supervision.

  2. They also funded musical events. When I was a student in St Mary’s Academt during the mid forties, we went to see orchestral and operatic events. I eagerly joined the Xavier U junior school of music due to this introduction. To this day music is an important part of my life.

  3. I am a former teacher of the New Roads-Pointe Coupee Parish Rosenwald Elementary School that was later merged with New Roads High School which then renaimed Rosenwald High Elementary School serving grades K-12.
    I was on the faculty from then on as a teacher for ten years, later as the School Counselor for ten years, then one of the Administrators until retirement in 1983.

    I have a picture of the Rosenwald Elementary School located in Ventress and now demolished. My late sister-in-law – Josephine Martin Richard started her teaching career there and later joined the Rosenwald Elementary High School Faculty until her retirement in 1984.

    • Dr. Richard, thank you for your bit of history. I would urge you to contact the National Trust for Historic Preservation at preservationnation.org to provide them with a digital file of your picture of the Ventress Rosenwald school. I’m sure they would really appreciate it.

  4. We can’t forget Rosenwald Community Center on Broad and Erato in New Orleans. The Calliope Project community used the facilities well. In addition to sports activities, there were arts and crafts classes for everyone from children to seniors.

  5. There is an old Rosenwald School in Algiers Louisiana, which has been a treasure to the Cut Off community. You can contact the pastor of Second Baptist Church and he will be happy to advise about the history of the school.

  6. Thank you for this fantastic article. We just expanded the Bettina Network, inc. by adding Bettina Network Hedge Schools, inc. Hedge Schools are an old Irish invention from the time when the Brits did not allow the Irish to attend school or learn on any level. They created these schools ‘behind the hedge’ with Hedge School Masters who traveled from one place to another teaching. These Hedge School Masters looked like the homeless – which in fact they were – but they could bargain in Latin, do whatever in Greek and more. Bettina Network Hedge Schools have the student/guests traveling from place to place and the Hedge School Facilitators staying put.

    Who knew there was a counterpart to these Irish Hedge Schools right in my own back yard. The incredible empowerment of history is awesome. I will be doing more research on the Rosenwald Schools. All of this I knew piece meal – I knew Mr. & Mrs. Stern, but didn’t connect her with any kind of school history. Knew a lot, but really didn’t know what I knew. Isn’t that what we all have to bridge?

    Thanks you creolegen for all that you do – how would be know all of this without you. Connecting the knowledge of our youth and using it to enrich the work of our adulthood – AWESOME!

  7. Hi Ms. Gobert, I retired from Plaisance Elementary. I had done a lot of research on Rosenwald schools when I learned about our music building. I think this site is wonderful.

    • My great grandfather donated land and material for the first Black school in Plaisance. His name was Felix Thierry. The school was named The Thierry School. There is an article that was printed in the Daily World newspaper in Nov. 4 1985,he was listed as Plaisance school founder. History on this need to include Felix Thierry and what he started for the Blacks children of Plaisance. Our history do not need to be Lost, like always.

    • Did Plaisance Elementary open after the flood in 2016? A few years ago I went to the St. Landry School Board b/c I trying to locate the school. I was thankful that a person overhead my conversation and directed me to the school. I went to Lafayette Parish to find public document on a Rosenwald School (Anderson Elem.) and no one was about to help me.

      • Lena, where do you live? There is a presentation on Rosenwald schools at Dillard University’s Georges Auditorium this Tuesday, Feb. 15th at 7pm. I don’t remember the presenter’s name but you should be able to ask him your questions.

  8. Came across a map a few years ago of some of the school locations in Caddo Parish. Of the 3 locations closest to me I got permission to metal detect 2 sites located in Corn/Cotton fields. I found a few things at each site to include a heart shaped brooch, a small ring, a few old coins and marbles. I emailed someone who was with the Rosewald School Preservation board and asked if they would like to have the items and the locations where they were found. This lady chewed me up one side and down the other about how I shouldn’t be detecting on historic school property and that I could get into a lot of trouble. I tried explaining to her that these items were found in the middle of cotton fields that are plowed under every year and that the fertilizers eat away at the metals in the ground. So much for history preservation I guess.

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