In the early 1900s, multimillionaire Julius Rosenwald decided to use his personal riches to help better the lives of blacks in the South.
Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., befriended Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and one of the most prominent black Americans of his time, and expressed interest in helping higher education institutions. Washington urged him to help elementary grades as well by underwriting a program he envisioned for building new schools.
The first Rosenwald school opened in 1913, and the Rosenwald Fund was established four years later with the vast majority of its funds going toward school construction.
The Rosenwald grants had to be matched by local communities, and the schools were designed by Tuskegee architecture students.
Over 20 years, the program contributed some $4.3 million in seed money to build 5,357 public schools, shops, and teachers’ residences in 15 states, from Texas to Maryland. By 1920, the program had grown so large that Rosenwald set up an office in Nashville, Tenn., to manage the enterprise.
Rosenwald and Washington hoped their efforts would foster more collaboration and better relationships between African-Americans and local white leaders. That dream, by most accounts, was unrealized, and most of the schools’ operating costs were woefully underfunded by the white school boards that oversaw them.
Washington himself was controversial. Some African- Americans rejected his view that vocational education and economic self- improvement should take priority over demands for social and political equality for blacks.
The Rosenwald school-building program operated until 1932, the year of the philanthropist’s death.
The Rosenwald Fund continued until 1948, but shifted priorities to other projects to attempt to further black education and equality.
—Joetta L. Sack