Monday, October 5, 2009

The Power of Partnership: Rosenwald School Building Program

One important thing that I have learned from studying history is that partnerships can make a big difference in the lives of others. Decisions to help those less fortunate or in difficult circumstances can impact the lives of those in need like few other things.

In 1912, African American educator Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck Company president Julius Rosenwald met and a relationship was formed that would certainly impact the lives of thousands of African American Southerners.

Rosenwald was a member on the Tuskegee Institute's Board of Trustees and had provided generous funds to the school's mission of educating black youth. In 1913 and 1914 six small schools in rural Alabama were built from surplus funds that Rosenwald had provided. In the next few years a school construction program was started and based at Tuskegee. In 1917 a formal fund, the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, was set up and run from Chicago. The school building program was moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1920 that had a large impact on offering educational facilities all across the South to African American students. By 1928 one of every five rural schools for blacks in the South was a Rosenwald school that taught one-third of the region's children.

The program largely stopped in 1932 with Rosenwald's death. By that time it had built almost 5,000 new schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings at a price of some $28.4 million. These school served over 663,000 students in 883 counties of 15 states.

The program was built upon the idea of matching grants. African Americans of the community where the school was to be built had to match the funds Rosenwald provided in cash or in-kind donations of labor and or materials for construction. This idea of self-help was strongly encouraged by both Washington and Rosenwald. They both understood that personal sacrifices of blood, sweat, tears and hard-earned cash would build a strong community commitment to education and its future rewards.

The schools not only served as educational facilities, but also turned into community gathering spaces for their local communities. Barbecues, family reunions, political speeches, dances, and other activities happened at the school buildings when not occupied by the scholars.

Even after schools were desegregated in theory in 1954 with the Supreme Court decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, many of the schools stayed in operation until integration was fulfilled in practice in the 1960s and 1970s.

In recent years a movement has started preserve a number of the Rosenwald schools, many of which have become dilapidated, or at best are in disrepair. This of course brings up some level of controversy in the African American community about whether we should preserve buildings from times (segregation) that brought such terror and pain. I personally think most of the preservation work is an honest and sincere effort to commemorate and show the power of community pride and cooperation it took to build the schools rather than a remembrance of the "Jim Crow" era and its practices.

1 comment: