The road to literacy for African Americans at the turn of the 20th century was paved with hope and determination. Illiteracy for blacks was being systematically eliminated throughout the nation.
The reduction in illiteracy was due in part to the charitable contributions of philanthropic organizations such as the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), the son of a German Jewish immigrant who came to America in 1854 to seek economic opportunity, started out in the clothing business but eventually became a partner in a young but thriving mail-order business owned by Richard Sears.
Mr. Rosenwald became active in the firm of Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1897 and became president of the company in 1909, and retired in 1924, at a time when annual sales for Sears & Roebuck were almost $200 million.
Julius Rosenwald believed that America could not prosper "if any large segment of its people were left behind" and wrote a letter to Booker T. Washington stating his purpose in wanting to help Washington's Tuskegee Institute or schools doing the same kind of work.
Washington, in response, outlined a way of implementing a far-reaching educational project in a letter to Rosenwald on June 12, 1912.
The first building funded through Rosenwald's personal philanthropy was built in Alabama in 1913. It was the founding of the Julius Rosenwald School Building Program in 1917 that marked the beginning of the most important educational initiative of the early 20th century.
By the time the Fund ended operations in 1932, the Program had contributed to the construction of 5,357 schools.
Threat: The schoolhouses were originally owned by the individual school systems, but when schools were integrated those constructed under the Rosenwald Fund were often closed. Many of the Rosenwald schools were destroyed, while others were simply abandoned. Most of the remaining schools are now 75 to 85 years old and are often located in rural areas with insufficient funds for upkeep. Although there are historic records regarding the schools, there is limited information about their current status and a network to save them.
Solution: As a first step, the Rosenwald schools surveys need to be inventoried. In addition, examples of adaptive use of the schools should be shared with communities and stronger activist networks created.
Recently, the Rosenwald Schools have been placed on the 2002 America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list created by the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation.
There is a companion photographic exhibit featuring one of the few remaining intact schools. It is located in Notasulga in Macon County.
For more information contact
The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center
104 South Elm Street, Tuskegee, AL
Source: National Park Service and National Historic Trust