ST. GEORGE, S.C.-Judge Ralph James settled into the restored, high-backed desk in a classroom of the segregated school in rural South Carolina. The old school bell, the cascading light through tall windows, the school Christmas pageant and the basketball court just outside the window came back to his memory in a rush.
Rosenwald Schools like this one, and nearly 5,000 others, built in the American South a century ago, gave Black students largely ignored by whites in power an educational foundation through the generosity of a Jewish businessman — a man whose legacy could soon be memorialized with a national park.
They are now referred to as Rosenwald Schools in honor of Julius Rosenwald, part-owner and eventual president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., who teamed up with Booker T. Washington, a legendary African American educator and leader. The two collaborated with others to create the program to share the expenses of schools for Black children with the community.
Such a collaboration was considered revolutionary in segregated South Carolina at that time. Municipal and state governments only spent pennies to teach Black children, and dollars to teach white their students. “Education has always been the key to success. Julius Rosenwald gave us that key,” said the Hon. Ralph James.
A retired municipal judge, 76-year-old James has made it one his life’s goals to restore his old school. In the past decade, James has secured more than $2 million in grants from the state of South Carolina, financial gifts from corporate citizens, and funding from other sources.
The payoff for his efforts is near. South Carolina’s governor is scheduled to visit the renovated Rosenwald School in St. George, NC on Tuesday as it hosts a meeting for electric cooperatives. A grand opening of the renovated facility is planned for September of this year.
A nationwide movement is underway to make the public more aware of the forgotten history of the Rosenwald Schools; acting upon a request from Congress, the National Park Service is studying how to create a national park to honor Rosenwald. This would include a visitors center about his life located in Chicago, and the project may also include about five schools across the 15 Southern states that were home to the structures.
Rosenwald gave $20 million to his foundation to build schools and $4 million more to other African American education and welfare causes; those extraordinary gifts would have the approximate value of about $440 million today.
Yet it was still less than half of the money Rosenwald donated in his lifetime to other causes — including Jewish charities, hospital construction projects, scientific research and war relief, according to a report from a group called The Campaign To Create a Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park.
Rosenwald was the son of German Jewish immigrants, and saw in African Americans a chance to help a similarly oppressed group willing to invest what little it could in its own future, said Dorothy Canter, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist leading the national park effort. Canter was inspired to get involved after seeing a 2015 documentary about Judge Rosenwald.
The Jewish community often saw the Black community as being victimized by the same kind of racist, violent repression they suffered in Europe, she said. Canter went on to say that the Rosenwald Schools story is crucial to the modern success of the United States by showing how different groups — working together to create a better society — can re-shape public policy when those in power were unwilling to help. “It is an important lesson,” Canter said.
“Where would the Civil Rights movement be? Where would John Lewis, Medgar Evers or Maya Angelou have gotten their education?” she asked.
Education for Black children was an afterthought in the South in the generations following the end of slavery. More than 51% of South Carolina’s population were classified as “negro” in the state’s 1920 census. By contrast, the state spent $14.9 million on white students and $1.7 million on Black students in 1927, according to the North Carolina superintendent of education’s annual report to the state Legislature.
The Rosenwald Fund helped build 481 schools in South Carolina. Only North Carolina (787) and Mississippi (557) had more of the groundbreaking education centers.
Andrew Feiler, a photographer who is fascinated by Rosenwald’s story, has taken photos of more than 100 Rosenwald schools and plans to be at the St. George event Tuesday. For him, Rosenwald’s legacy ‘is giving while you’re living’, as well as pioneering the modern idea of a matching grant by providing seed money and requiring community support.
“We often believe problems are intractable in modern America, especially those related to race,” Feiler said. “But this partnership between African Americans and a Jewish businessman shows that concerted, focused action really can make a difference.”
About 500 Rosenwald Schools remain standing and roughly half are still in good enough condition to be used, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Some surviving Rosenwald schools have been converted into senior centers, town halls, special event venues or even restaurants. Many of the facilities remain recognizable by the careful plans Rosenwald approved. For example, tall windows oriented to the east and west assured an abundance of natural light and ventilation in rural areas where electricity often didn’t reach until after the Great Depression.
Inside one of the restored schools, two classrooms look almost as they did 70 years ago. Another classroom is being used as a public meeting room. The school auditorium has been turned into a multipurpose space and will feature exhibits detailing the school’s history, as well as hands-on science displays, Judge James stated.
“You can feel what it was like just like I did,” he said.
Jeffrey Collins wrote the story originally appearing on the Associated Press Newswire.