Between 1912 and 1932, nearly 5,000 “Rosenwald schools” for black children were established in the South. They were built in the eleven states of the Confederacy as well as Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. They ranged in size from simple single-teacher schools to large high schools.
Julius Rosenwald, Sears Company Head and Jewish Philanthropist
They were called “Rosenwald schools,” because the money to start them came from Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932). He was a second-generation American. His parents emigrated from Germany in 1854 to escape anti-Jewish discrimination. Rosenwald made a great fortune by building Sears, Roebuck & Company into the world’s largest retail company. He served as Sears President and Chairman.
Famed Black Educator, Booker T. Washington
Equally important in building the Rosenwald schools was Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). He was born a slave in Virginia. At age 25, Washington became the first principal of the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers in Alabama. He built it into the Tuskegee Institute, the largest and most successful college for African Americans, now called Tuskegee University. By the early 1900s, Washington was the most prominent and powerful African American in the country.
A Life-Long Partnership
Washington and Rosenwald first met in 1911. Rosenwald and his wife traveled to visit Tuskegee Institute later that year. A month later, Rosenwald joined the Board of Directors of Tuskegee. He remained on the board for the rest of his life.
Rosenwald had money. Washington had knowledge and contacts. In 1912, the two agreed to work together to construct public schools for black students. They first decided to create six schools near Tuskegee as a pilot project. Over the years, the number of schools grew and spread through the entire South.
A Dedication to Quality
All Rosenwald schools were built to specifications for size, ventilation, windows, and other properties. Tuskegee Institute architects developed the plans. Some schools were built by Tuskegee students. After Washington died, quality control suffered. Rosenwald then created the Rosenwald Fund to oversee school construction.
Rosenwald did not simply give money to people to build schools. He required people in each locality to show how much they wanted the school. They had to raise money or contribute labor. They also had to convince the local white government to contribute money.
Rosenwald actually provided the smallest amount of money: about $4.4 million. State and local governments gave over $18 million. Local people raised about $6 million – $4.7 million from blacks and $1.2 million from whites. (They contributed to Rosewald schools besides what they already paid in taxes for public schools.)