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Ringing the bell for the Rosenwald Schools at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Like a lot of people, Andrew Feiler had never heard of the Rosenwald schools. And that bothered him.

“When I learned the story, it shocked me,” says the Atlanta-based photographer. “I’m a fifth-generation Southerner, I’m Jewish, I’ve been a civic activist my entire life. I mean, the pillars of this story are the pillars of my life. How did I not know about Rosenwald Schools?”

Feiler embarked on a quest to document in images and oral history one of America’s great, if largely unknown, educational success stories. Along with a stunning coffee table book, this work has been compiled in a traveling exhibit, “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America.” Expanded to include additional information on Virginia’s own Rosenwald schools, the exhibit will be on display starting Saturday, May 25 at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture (VMHC).

The terms of the Rosenwald program, designed in 1912 to provide seed money for African-American schools across the South, was “genius,” Feiler says. “This is one of the earliest examples of challenge grants in philanthropic history, and the white school system had to agree to participate to receive funding. This is also an early example of a public-private partnership. It’s what made the program successful.”

Atlanta photographer Andrew Feiler embarked on a quest to document in images and oral history one of America’s great, if largely unknown, educational success stories: The Rosenwald Schools.

As impactful as it was, little had been written about Rosenwald schools, beyond academic literature, when Feiler started his research in 2015. Over the next three-and-a-half years, he drove 25,000 miles across all 15 of the participating states, took photos of surviving (and dilapidating) schools, and met former students, former teachers, preservationists, and civic leaders who were involved in saving existing school structures.

“Of the 105 schools that I went to, only five are still in use for educational purposes,” he says. “That’s due to the fact that most of these were very small, one-teacher, two-teacher schools. They were usually small because the African American community was not awarded school buses so these schools had to serve an area where the kids could walk to school. A county that had Rosenwald schools, on average, had an average of five-and-a-half schools and some counties had as many as 20. It was based on the density of the African-American population.” He adds that most of the schools were in more rural areas, where African Americans had fewer municipal resources. For instance, there were no Rosenwald schools in Richmond but several in neighboring Hanover and Henrico.

More than half of these schools have disappeared. “Because they tended to be small, they outgrew their use for educational purposes long ago,” Feiler says. “That’s why when you focus on historic preservation of surviving schools, you are often talking about adaptive reuse. Some of these schoolhouses have turned into churches, community centers, small museums, social halls, and private homes. And, in the case of Turin, Georgia, a Rosenwald building [Walter B. Hill Industrial School] is now city hall.”

Hannah School in Newberry County, South Carolina (1925-1960s).

Producing civil rights leaders

“A signature part of the Rosenwald program was its matching requirement,” says Karen Sherry. “The Rosenwald fund only provided a portion of the monies needed to build schools, and the local government and the Black communities had to contribute the rest of the funds. Sometimes those funds often took the form of matching costs, like labor, of land or materials toward the building of the school.”

The Rosenwald program, initiated in 1912, was the brainchild of African-American leader Booker T. Washington. “He had started a pilot program providing funds to help rural Black communities build schools in Alabama,” says Sherry, the senior curator at VMHC. “He wanted to expand that program across the segregated South.” While he was looking to do that, she says, the Virginia-born Washington, who attended Hampton Institute (now University), had a fortuitous meeting with Julius Rosenwald, the president and CEO of Sears Roebuck & Company, the largest retailer in the world at the time.

“Rosenwald was a major philanthropist,” she says. “He was of Jewish descent and his parents were immigrants so he helped Jewish hospitals and charities but African American causes became a major part of his philanthropy.” The businessman constructed YMCAs for Black communities during segregation, and created a fund to provide scholarship money for Black artists, scholars and intellectuals, but his crowning achievement was to fund this trailblazing schools program.

The initiative was “enormously successful,” Feiler says, pointing to a study, “The Impact of Rosenwald Schools on Black Achievement,” conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “Their data shows that prior to World War I there was a large white/Black educational gap in the South. But that gap decreases precipitously between World War I and World War II, and the single greatest driver is Rosenwald schools.”

In addition, he says, many of the leaders and foot soldiers of the ensuing civil rights movement were the product of these schools. “Medger Evars, Maya Angelou, multiple members of the Little Rock 9, the people behind the litigation of Brown v. Board of Education, John Lewis, they all went to Rosenwald Schools.”

John Lewis, a civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman who died in 2020, was a former Rosenwald School student.

Former Georgia Congressman Lewis had attended Dunn’s Chapel School in Pike County, Alabama, and wrote the foreword to Feiler’s book shortly before his death in 2020. “I was hungry to learn. I was absolutely committed to giving my all in the classroom,” the civil rights leader wrote of his bare bones, Rosenwald-funded school, which had no running water. “My parents would describe education in almost mythical terms, that it offered the keys to the kingdom of America, that it offered the keys to a better life and to the opportunity so long denied our race.” He added: “Our school had a small library, and biographies were my favorite … stories that opened my eyes to the world beyond Pike County.”

The power of individual action

“A Better Life for Their Children” features 26 of Feiler’s photographs along with the stories behind them, tracing the broad history of the school building program, which helped to build 382 schools in 56 Virginia counties and four cities. “The VMHC has also organized a Virginia-specific component to amplify Andrew Feiler’s story,” says Sherry. “We also include the recreation of a classroom that kind of evokes what a typical Rosenwald schoolroom would look like, as well as interpretive materials that address the specific experience of Rosenwald schools in Virginia.”

In addition to oral histories, collected with the help of William and Mary College’s Bray School lab, there are artifacts that bring different Virginia schools to life: a dress worn by a Cape Charles Elementary student when she graduated from seventh grade, a school bell that told students at Goochland’s Second Union School that it was time for class. “There are some wonderful, engaging recollections of school days,” Sherry says. “But there are also poignant stories. Some alumni talk about how they didn’t know segregation existed until they went downtown and tried to buy ice cream from the local shop owner, or wanted to sit in the front of the bus and were told to go to the back. It was powerful to hear how these black Virginians learned about segregation and their place in an American society ruled by racism.”

Interior, Emory School – Hale County, Alabama c. 1915-1962

The Rosenwald program was one of the most transformative educational initiatives of the 20th Century, Sherry maintains. “But it’s not a story that people really know about any more, The program ended in 1932 and many of the schools weren’t necessarily titled ‘Rosenwald schools.’ I’ve met some alumni who said that they didn’t even know at the time they were attending a Rosenwald school.”

“They didn’t call it ‘Rosenwald schools’ because Julius Rosenwald was a modest man and didn’t put his name on things,” Feiler adds. “But the communities ended up referring to them that way because obviously it was a significant source of funding.”

When Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington met in 1911, the photographer says, it was before the Great Migration, when African Americans began moving North to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow South. That didn’t begin until later in that decade. At that time, 90% of the nation’s African Americans lived in the South, and their public schools, when they had them, were mostly given a fraction of the funding provided for white children. Feiler: “It’s important to remember that baseline, the depth of the problem they are solving really is significant.”

In the end, more than 700,000 Black children across the South were educated through the program, before Rosenwald’s funding ended with his death in 1932. It’s a story that should inspire us today, the photographer maintains.

“We live in a deeply divided America, but in 1912, in the depths of Jim Crow, Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington are reaching across divides of race, religion and region and fundamentally transforming this country for the better. I think there is a lesson in there for all of us who are crying out for change in America. And that lesson is that individual actions matter, individual actions change the world.”

“A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America” will be on display at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture May 25-April 20, 2025. Among other satellite events, curator Andrew Feiler will give a lecture on the exhibit on Sept. 5 at 6 p.m. For admission and other information, go to virginiahistory.org

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