The Rosenwald rural school building initiative was an important effort to enhance public education for African Americans in the early twentieth-century South. In 1912 Julius Rosenwald, onetime chair of Sears, Roebuck, and Company in Chicago, donated thirty thousand dollars to Tuskegee Institute and authorized Booker T. Washington to use the money to build six small schools in rural Alabama. They opened in 1913 and 1914. Inspired, Rosenwald in 1917 established the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a Chicago-based philanthropic foundation, to finance a major program to construct schoolhouses across the South. By 1928 one of every five rural schools for black students in the region was a Rosenwald School, and they accommodated one-third of the region’s rural black schoolchildren and teachers. By the end of the initiative in 1932, Rosenwald had spent $28,408,520 to construct 4,977 schools, 163 shop buildings, and 217 teachers’ homes to aid 663,615 students in 883 counties in 15 states. Mississippi’s 637 Rosenwald-assisted buildings trailed only North Carolina. Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Rosenwald Schools served as the only black primary and secondary educational facilities in many parts of the South.
Rosenwald initially provided grants to specific individuals and to support educational and social service institutions in the South, believing that his philanthropy and others should serve as seed money, encouraging governments and communities to take responsibility for necessary programs and services. He and Rosenwald Fund organizers saw the building program as providing southern states with an incentive to meet their responsibility for respectable public schools for black children, and by 1920 the fund’s Southern Office worked to create exemplary rural schools. To receive funds, schools had to meet specific minimum standards for site size and length of school term and have new blackboards and desks for each classroom as well as two sanitary privies. The Rosenwald Fund would increase its grants if county school boards lengthened the black students’ school year and provided better teacher pay. Encouraged, county school boards instituted taxes to help finance the schools and incorporated them into the public school system. The Rosenwald Fund also subsidized radios to help students keep abreast of current events, school libraries with books on African American history and culture, and school transportation. Between 1920 and 1928, the fund supported the construction of nearly five hundred schools each year.
The schools ranged from small, one-teacher units to seven-teacher facilities that offered instruction from first grade through high school, often with an emphasis on industrial education. In the program’s early years, wooden two-teacher and three-teacher structures commonly appeared. By the mid-1920s, larger brick schools were built. The schools had modern architectural designs with high ceilings and large windows, allowing natural light to pour into classrooms that lacked electricity.
Local support provided the crucial component of the Rosenwald Schools’ success. Principals, teachers, ministers, students, and parents gathered to clear land; renovate, clean, and paint the buildings; improve the grounds; and raise and allocate money for other projects. African Americans worked to earn funds to match the Rosenwald grants, raising money at churches and fraternal lodges and donating some of their scarce income from farming, efforts that strengthened local people’s commitment. As rural African Americans helped themselves, they became the dynamic force behind the Rosenwald program and the architects of its significance. The schools became community centers, hosting sporting events, public meetings, dramatic performances, and classes on farming techniques, and instilled a work ethic and community values in parents and students.
Even though the Rosenwald program did not solve the South’s schooling problems, it confronted the racism behind segregation by compelling southern states to take more interest in education. The schools’ cost-efficient designs encouraged officials to escalate vocational education and public school infrastructure for both white and black students. Today, many of the schools have fallen into disrepair and require conservation. In 2002 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Rosenwald Schools on its list of endangered sites, and in 2011 it included the schools in its portfolio of National Treasures—nationally significant but threatened historic structures.
Only a few Rosenwald buildings are known to survive in Mississippi: Bay Springs School, Forrest County (1925); Brushy Creek School, Copiah County (ca. 1930); Bynum School, Panola County (1926); Coahoma Agricultural High School (ca. 1930; now Coahoma Community College); Drew School, Sunflower County (1929); Hollandale School, Washington County (1924; only a section survives, and it has been extensively altered); Marks School, Quitman County (1922); Moorhead Schoolteacher’s House, Sunflower County (1932); Nichols Elementary School, Canton, Madison County (1927); Oak Park Principal’s Home and Girls’ Dormitory, Laurel, Jones County (1928); Pantherburn School, Sharkey County (1927; altered, now serves as a church); Pass Christian (Randolph) School, Pass Christian, Harrison County (1928); Prentiss Institute, Prentiss, Jefferson Davis County (1926); Rose Hill School, Sharkey County (1922; badly deteriorated); Sherman Line School, Amite County (1928); Swiftown School, Leflore County (1921; may not be a Rosenwald School); Walthall County Training (Ginntown) School, Walthall County (1920); John White Schoolteacher’s House, Forrest County (1925).
- James D. Anderson, Black Education in the South, 1860–1935 (1988)
- James D. Anderson, History of Education Quarterly (Winter 1978)
- Jennifer Baughn, Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Tom Hanchett, Rosenwald Schools website, www.rosenwaldplans.org
- Mary Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South (2006)
- Jennifer Nardone, “The Rosenwald School Building Program in Mississippi, 1919–1931” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2009)
- National Trust for Historic Preservation website, www.preservationnation.org
- National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Treasures website, https://savingplaces.org/national-treasures#.V119T5ErKM-
- Betty Jamerson Reed, The Brevard Rosenwald School: Black Education and Community Building in a Southern Appalachian Town, 1920–1966 (2004)
- Jerry Wayne Woods, “The Julius Rosenwald Fund School Building Program: A Saga in the Growth and Development of African-American Education in Selected West Tennessee Communities” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1995)