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?