Rosenwald Schools Remembered At Virginia Museum Of History And Culture

Before the United States Supreme Court in its unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling threw out “separate, but equal,” determining racial segregation in America’s public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment of the Constitution, Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 codified “separate, but equal” as law.

Separate, of course, was never equal for African Americans.

Plessy v. Ferguson entrenched Jim Crow segregation, “whites only” water fountains, “colored” waiting rooms, back-of-the-bus seating, and a thousand other slights, humiliations, and inferior conditions Black citizens had to suffer in comparison to whites. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in public schools, particularly across the South.

To call Southern schools for Black children in the first half of the 20th century substandard to those for white children would be a gross insult to the word substandard. In many places, no effort was even made at providing public schools for African Americans, despite Plessy v. Ferguson making it legal to bar them from attending schools with white kids.

Enter Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald.

As president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the leading Black educator in America, Washington developed the idea for building schools for underserved African American communities. Doing so would require a ton of money.

Rosenwald—president of Sears Roebuck Company—had a ton of money.

In 1912, the pair teamed up, Washington providing the vision, Rosenwald the funding, and between then and 1932, the dynamic duo created 4,978 schools, as well as shop buildings and teacher housing, for a total of 5,357 structures across 15 Southern states. The Rosenwald schools.

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture explores the transformative impact of this program during a special exhibition “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America,” on view through April 20, 2025.

“Before they met, the two men were already nationally famous and Julius Rosenwald had read and admired Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, ‘Up from Slavery,’” Karen Sherry, exhibition curator at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, told Forbes.com. “When they met in person in 1911 at a fundraiser in Chicago, they bonded over a shared commitment to hard work and self-help as means to improvement. This ethos was the foundation of the Rosenwald school program.”

That fundraiser was held at Rosenwald’s hotel in Chicago. Washington was the featured speaker.

Why did a super-wealthy, white man in 1911 America care about Black people, especially Black kids, an opinion shared by virtually none of his contemporaries?

“Julius Rosenwald believed deeply in the promise of America. As the son of German-Jewish immigrants, he was the embodiment of that promise,” Sherry explains. “He felt that the nation was being held back by its oppression of Black Americans, writing ‘I do not see how America can go ahead if part of its people are left behind.’ His Jewish faith also motivated him to share his good fortune with others.”

Rosenwald schools would go on to serve more than 663,000 students—one-third of Black children in the region—while employing thousands of teachers. They increased Black literacy and prepared students for higher education and skilled professions. They became important community hubs, fostering deep pride among citizens who everywhere else they turned in America were victims of abuse and derision. At the Rosenwald schools, a generation of future civil rights leaders were educated, including Maya Angelou, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, and members of the Little Rock Nine.

Lost To Time

Despite the Rosenwald school’s gargantuan influence on America, their history is little known today.

“This reflects, in part, how Black and Jewish stories are under-represented in our collective knowledge of American history,” Sherry said. “Another reason for lack of familiarity with the program is that Julius Rosenwald believed that his charitable giving should sunset, so the program ended with his death in 1932. Most of the schools were not named ‘Rosenwald.’ As a school’s founding generation passed on, its connection to this program was forgotten.”

Adding to the erasure, only a fraction of the Rosenwald school buildings remain—approximately 500 of 5,000 structures.

“We have lost the physical manifestations of this program,” Sherry added.

Count Atlanta-based photographer Andrew Feiler among the previously uniformed. When Feiler learned of the Rosenwald story, it inspired him to embark on a three-year journey across the South documenting the school buildings left standing and their alumni. His award-winning book“A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America,” evolved into the traveling exhibition.

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture’s presentation features 26 of Feiler’s photographs and stories of Rosenwald schools across the South. The Museum supplements that with a section exploring the Rosenwald experience and legacy in Virginia. Three hundred and eighty-two Rosenwald buildings were constructed around the state. These Virginia-specific contents include oral histories with alumni, artifacts, a recreation of a classroom, and additional resources.

While more closely associated with Alabama, Booker T. Washington was born in Virginia.

“The Virginia Museum of History & Culture is proud to bring this timely history to light, not just because of the inspiration it has to offer us, but also because it allowed us, before it was too late, to capture and preserve the reflections of many surviving alumni of Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools,” VMHC President & CEO Jamie Bosket told Forbes.com. “The Rosenwald school story demonstrates the power of collaboration across racial, religious, regional, and economic lines. This is a lesson that can serve us well in divided times: when we come together, we can solve the pressing problems facing our society.”

In For A Penny, In For A Pound

Constructing 5,000 schools in 20 years with marginal government support and, oftentimes, local resistance, would stand as a remarkable achievement today. How did Washington and Rosenwald pull it off 100 years ago?

“Initially, the Tuskegee Institute administered the program, but as it expanded and demand grew for funding, the Rosenwald Fund established an agency to run it,” Sherry explains. “At the local level, Black community groups worked with the state’s existing public school system through the Department of Education or another administrative agency. That’s part of the brilliance of the Rosenwald program, it required this kind of interracial and state-local collaboration.”

The Rosenwald program required matching funds from local governments to establish the schools. It also required Black residents be equally invested.

“It’s important to note that Black communities took the initiative to get a Rosenwald school for their children,” Sherry added. “They had to raise their required matching funds, often at great hardship, and they had to seek approval and buy-in from local government officials.”

It’s not difficult imaging how poorly received those requests might have initially been. Or how Black families sharecropping across the South had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to co-fund a Rosenwald school for their neighborhood while putting food on the table.

Black families contributed money, land, building materials, and labor to realize their dreams of providing educational opportunities for their children. Let that be a reminder when someone is heard spewing the lie of how African American families and communities don’t value education the way others do. That has never been the case.

Contrary to popular opinion, Brown did not magically integrate schools overnight. The Supreme Court failed in detailing how to enforce its decision. School districts around the South and across the country drug their feet. For decades. Almost no real progress was made until 1969 when the Supreme Court–again unanimously–ordered the immediate integration of the nation’s public schools as part of its Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education ruling.

With integration finally being enforced in the 1970s, many Rosenwald schools were repurposed or fell into disuse and then gradually disrepair. Some did continue operating as schools and were expanded or renovated to handle new student populations.

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