Rosenwald schools and libraries

Electric, interurban streetcar, running from Fort Worth to Dallas; Dunbar HS was near the sixth stop.

I grew up in Fort Worth during the time of legalized racial segregation. There were no African Americans in my school. If not for summer and part-time jobs, I would have had little interaction across the racial divide.

This meant that I knew little about the schools for African Americans in Fort Worth. There were even segregated sports leagues. I think I went to just one Black football game and that was because I became friends with a Black fellow orderly when I worked in the local hospital.

Joe was a halfback on the Dunbar High School football team in the Stop Six neighborhood. I believe that the school is still largely segregated, a consequence not of the law anymore, but of residential segregation.

Rosenwald schools

One major gap in my knowledge pertained to the Rosenwald schools. Thanks to Julius Rosenwald, who provided funds for 1/3 of the cost of school buildings, Anna Jeanes, who funded teacher preparation, Booker T. Washington, and others, thousands of schools were born. As important as that external support was, it’s important to note that local Black citizens from a poor, working class, donated cash, labor, and land to make the schools possible.

Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collection, Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives

These programs provided education for generations of African American students, teachers, and scholars. Maya Angelou and John Lewis were grads from Rosenwald schools. Mamie and Kenneth Clark did their research on Rosenwald fellowships as did Pauli Murphy. Their work was crucial for the decision in Brown v, Board of Education.

The project began in 1915, when Sears and Roebuck President, Julius Rosenwald, established a matching grant fund to construct better quality black schools throughout the South. Between 1917 and 1932, the Fund assisted in the construction of thousands of school buildings This was during a time when public support for educating African American children was shamefully inadequate. Over one-third of black children in the South in the first half of the twentieth century passed through the doors of a Rosenwald school, 

Rosenwald School (Public Domain image from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

There’s an excellent photography/text book: A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America by photographer and author Andrew Feiler. There are many fascinating photos. Feiler says 4,978 schools, but counting teacher homes and shops there was a total of 5,357 buildings constructed.

Rosenwald libraries

Just this past year I’ve learned about Rosenwald’s program to fund more than 10,000 school, college, and public libraries, and library science programs. The libraries not only provided resources for individuals; they enabled accreditation for programs for African Americans, which would otherwise not be possible. Aisha Johnson has a wonderful new book on these libraries, The African American Struggle for Library Equality.

Why didn’t I know?

I probably heard about Rosenwald schools and libraries, or the Jeanes teachers, during my career, but most of that passed right through my head.

With all the current talk about DEI and social justice, isn’t it a collective failure that the fact of those programs—the very need for them at all, their struggles, and their impact on individuals and society—were so little known by so many of us?

Chatting with Character.AI

Here’s my latest chat with Jane Addams, through Character.AI, one of the many new AI chat programs.

I’m considering inviting Jane to co-author an article with me, something that combines a modern perspective with her insider view.


Remember: Everything Characters say is made up!


Do you know John Dewey?

Jane Addams c.AI

Yes, John Dewey and I were friends. When I founded Hull House, John Dewey and his wife were among the first people who gave talks at the settlement. Dewey was also an early donor. I remember a time when John was speaking at Hull House and my little dog was very frightened of him and kept barking at him. John was so funny. He made a joke about it and everyone laughed. He was very kind.


Why didn’t the University of Chicago hire you?

Jane Addams c.AI

Because I was a woman, I have no doubt. I was never given anything resembling a real interview or fair chance of being selected. A lot of institutions were simply not willing to hire women. I don’t know why they were not. I have tried to think of any legitimate reason and cannot come up with any. The reason was simply misogyny. I don’t know what else to say.


Your work deserves placement alongside William James, C. S. Peirce, John Dewey, and other great pragmatist philosophers.

Jane Addams c.AI

Thank you for saying that. My interest in philosophy did start with Peirce. He is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, who hardly gets read or spoken about now. He was the forerunner of what is called semiotics, the study of signs. He had a strong influence on my thought in general. A friend of mine gave me copies of his work. His most difficult work, a collection of articles called The Essential Peirce, is in print now. Have you read any of Peirce? Or James and Dewey?

Gerbert de Aurillac, a lesson for today?

Gerbert de Aurillac, later known as Pope Sylvester II, was a talented French mathematics teacher who played an important role in bringing mathematics, science, medicine, and new technologies into Europe in the 10th century. These contributions were accompanied by efforts at social advancement, but in both arenas de Aurillac’s ultimate failure offers an important lesson for all of us today.

Pope Sylvester II

De Aurillac’s most important contribution was the decimal system, including the Hindu-Arabic numeral system we use today, but he also (re-)introduced the abacus, study of Arab and Greco-Roman arithmetic, astronomical studies, and the armillary sphere (a physical model of objects in the sky). Some credit him with the invention of the first mechanical clock (at least in Europe), one that used a pendulum to keep track of the time.

These ideas were not created de novo, but developed within a rich cultural milieu. A vibrant culture, nurtured by Islam, flourished in Spain, especially in Andalusia, from the coming of the Arabs in 711 until their expulsion in 1492. Spain was a home for Christians, Jews, and Muslims who interacted peacefully and learned from one another.

De Aurillac most likely studied at the abbey of Santa Maria de Ripoll, in the mountains of northeastern Spain. While there, he encountered texts from the Greek and Roman times, as well as Arabic texts, Visigoth texts, and many others. He recognized the vital role played by the world of Islam and would support what we would call multiculturalism today, as well as the development of a scientific community.

An armillary sphere in a painting by Botticelli

But this was not to last.

De Aurillac, as Sylvester II, was the first Frenchman to become pope. As such, he was deemed a “foreigner,” who did not deserve that position. His celebration of ancient and foreign ideas was no doubt a further obstacle to his acceptance.

But the larger problem he faced was age-old greed and the desire for power. His opponents sought to demonize him.

While he was studying mathematics and astrology in Córdoba and Seville, he was accused of learning sorcery. He supposedly stole a book of spells from an Arab philosopher. The demonization of Sylvester the individual drew from and reinforced the general fear of Islam.

Along with the rejection of “foreigners” and “foreign” culture, there was a rejection of mathematics, science, and new technologies. The magnificent bounty that the Islamic world offered to Europe was largely rejected.

Pope Sylvester II and the Devil

By the end of the 11th century, the new powers within the church and European society enforced a theocracy, instituted the crusades, and before long, the Inquisition. Although the term “dark ages” is not appropriate, there was definitely a loss. Science was retarded, and the rich interchange of ideas diminished. This period lasted half a millennium, until the time of Galileo and Copernicus.

It was no outside force, but Europe itself that brought that on.

What about today? We see a similar xenophobia, the demonization of others, insatiable greed, violent efforts to obtain power, a rejection of science and mathematics, indeed of all forms of learning, and a subordination of civil society to particular religious doctrines.

Gerbert de Aurillac would recognize this pattern well. He failed against the onslaught of forces that cared little about learning, about other cultures, or peaceful, associated life. Will we do the same?

A football field every 45 minutes

Isle de Jean Charles

Isle de Jean Charles

John D. Sutter’s column ‘There’s no more land’ struck home for me about global warming and sea level rise.

It’s not that Sutter offers new data or analysis on sea level rise per se. There is plenty of that already. For example, Dahr Jamail’s excellent recent summary ‘Climate disruption in overdrive: Submerged cities and melting that “feeds on Itself”‘ is enough to ruin whatever you might imagine could be a good day. It starts with this

the planet is warming a stunning 50 times faster than when it comes out of an ice age. The implications of the rapidity of this warming, for those who care to digest it emotionally, are horrifying…. even if carbon reduction targets are achieved and the planet’s temperature is kept below the 2 degree Celsius warming threshold, sea-level rise will still inundate major coastal cities around the world, forcing one-fifth of the total world population of humans to migrate away from the coasts.

and goes downhill from there.

But Sutter shows what dreary statistics can mean for ordinary lives:

Isle de Jean Charles, the mostly French-speaking, Native American community where Billiot [Wenceslaus Billiot, an 88-year-old born on the island] lives, once was about the size of Manhattan. Now, it’s about a third of Central Park.

The coastal island has lost 98% of its land since 1955.

And what’s left is going fast.

“I don’t know how long we’re going to stay here,” Billiot told me.

“If a hurricane comes, we’re wide open.

“There’s no more land.”

The island is losing a football field chunk of land every 45 minutes. Also see Lauren Zanolli’s ‘Louisiana’s vanishing island: the climate ‘refugees’ resettling for $52m’.

I’ve never been to Isle de Jean Charles, but have traveled in that area just south of New Orleans. Susan and I once camped in a tent at Grand Isle State Park. We feasted on Gulf shrimp we bought directly off a trawler. It’s a rare and magical place to visit.

The website for the island/town says:

For the people of Isle de Jean Charles, the island is more than simply a place to live. It is the epicenter of our people and traditions. It is where our ancestors cultivated what has become a unique part of Louisiana culture. Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes.  Our tribal lands are plagued with a host of environmental problems — coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, oil company and government canals, and a rising sea level — which are threatening our way of life on this gradually shrinking island.

The land’s beauty is enhanced by the feeling of its impermanence, whether because of hurricanes or natural changes in estuaries and dunes. If I were typesetting the island, I’d look for a wispy font with a small type size.

Isle de Jean Charles

Bayous and estuaries south of New Orleans

But the fact of the impermanence has now been written in 96 point bold by the actions of humans rapidly destroying the land. Channeling the river, adding dams and levees, drilling for and transporting oil, developing resort communities, and other activities have all played their part, but stronger hurricanes and sea level rise are the final blows.

Our politicians seem happy to stay in blissful ignorance of all this (see ‘In their own words: 2016 presidential candidates on climate change’). Republican leaders are actually in denial and Democrats make tepid statements without programs for meaningful change. Naomi Klein writes that to make those changes, “some powerful interests will have to lose”:

A president willing to inflict these losses on fossil-fuel companies and their allies needs to be more than just not actively corrupt. That president needs to be up for the fight of the century—and absolutely clear about which side must win. Looking at the Democratic primary, there can be no doubt about who is best suited to rise to this historic moment.

For Klein, Bernie Sanders is the one best suited for that rise. But could anyone who stands up to the fossil-fuel companies ever be elected President? More importantly, could they stand up to the fossil fuel users, meaning us?

To win “the fight of the century” many more people need to connect the larger processes of human-induced climate change to the particulars of places like Isle de Jean Charles, and further, to connect that to the choices we make about lifestyle and to what we value.