Built in the early 1900s for African-American children, Rosenwald Schools are disappearing from the landscape.
Wake Forest, N.C.
Ravaged by time and neglect, DuBois High School still stands as a symbol of the decent education that African-Americans across the South craved, well before they were allowed into the schools attended by their white peers.
The boarded-up red-brick structure has gaping holes in its roof. Weeds have overtaken much of the sidewalk. Wooden eaves are rotting, and the front entry is sagging sadly after years of indifference.
To the few who know the story of this school, though, its tired appearance can’t overshadow the building’s dramatic history.
When it was built in 1926, the DuBois school was part of a vision shared by Booker T. Washington and one of the leading white capitalists of the time to build top-notch public schools for African-Americans across the South, from Texas all the way to Maryland.
Like many of the other historic "Rosenwald schools"—named for the business leader and philanthropist who helped pay to build them—the DuBois school became a beacon for impoverished African-Americans, divided by railroad tracks from the handsome houses and schools of white residents a few blocks away.
Despite the rich history of those schools, their story has been largely ignored. That is beginning to change. Most recently, the impending 50th anniversary of Brown v.Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned racial segregation in public schooling, is bringing renewed attention to the schools.
Only in the past 20 years or so have historic preservationists turned their attention to documenting Rosenwald schools, which otherwise have been slowly disintegrating into the landscape, taking the stories—and, often, the pride—of their communities with them.
In the 1970s, preservationists were "basically looking at rich white men’s houses," says Claudia R. Brown, the architectural- survey coordinator and an architectural historian with North Carolina’s historic-preservation office, located in Raleigh.
"Over time, that has changed dramatically," she adds. More recent surveys of historical buildings have included modest dwellings and other sites, including Rosenwald schools, that tell the stories of average citizens.
More than 5,300 Rosenwald schools and other buildings were built as part of the project from 1913 to 1932, in 15 states. More than 800 of the structures were in North Carolina.The idea for the schools was conceived by the black educator and author Washington and financed by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., the Chicago-based mail-order giant and department store chain.
Rosenwald set up a program that offered state-of-the-art facility plans designed by architects from Tuskegee Institute and funding for grants that were matched by local communities. The schools served black students who were shut out of regular public schools in the era of Jim Crow, or who attended classes in decrepit structures—if at all.
"To lose these buildings is to lose an important story and an important chain of history that made Brown v. Board a more important movement," says John Hildreth, the director of the Southern office, in Charleston, S.C., of the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.
More important, perhaps, is the desire of the many alumni of Rosenwald schools who want to tell their stories and recapture some of the bonds that held their communities together during the years of segregation.
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.
It’s a struggle that will require time, money, and dedication, not unlike the efforts to see the schools themselves built in the early 20th century.
"The challenges that face Rosenwald schools are challenges that are not new to the historic-preservation movement," Hildreth says. "In many cases, [the challenges] are exacerbated in that they are often in rural locations and often have been abandoned from the original use."
Simply finding Rosenwald schools has been a challenge. North Carolina’s historians have been using a 1930s list to help them locate the old school sites. But, they’ve frequently found that the name of a community is wrong, or isn’t used anymore, or that the town no longer exists. And the schools could be hidden anywhere in the state’s vast rural areas.
Further, the plans for the Rosenwald schools were often reused—so that schools that look like Rosenwald schools, in fact, are not—and it’s not always possible to say if a school was Rosenwald-funded.
Because little money is available, Brown, of the North Carolina preservation office, relies on volunteers to conduct surveys that document the buildings.
When an intern in Brown’s office tried to find the remaining Rosenwald schools in rural Bertie County, on the North Carolina coast, she produced telling results. Of 19 schools on the list, five were intact, two were altered beyond recognition, and one was in ruins. Evidence suggested that 10 had been destroyed. The intern was unable to find any evidence of one of the schools on the list, but found seven schools that appeared to be Rosenwald-like structures.
School historians recently discovered a long-abandoned school in Inez, N.C., a tiny community in rural Warren County. The faded structure is barely visible from the road, tucked in a field behind a row of chicken coops. Its door hangs open, revealing a jumble of desks.
While the Rosenwald schools in rural areas are more likely to still exist, many are decaying. Those in urban areas are most likely to have been destroyed as part of redevelopment. There are no estimates of the number of them still standing.
Some examples point to creative reuse of the buildings. In Asheboro, N.C., one seven-room school has been converted to apartments for the elderly. Others have been taken over by churches as classroom space, and some have become homes. Just a few, including a middle school in Winston-Salem, N.C., are still in use as schools.
Near Raleigh, St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church renovated the St. Matthew School. Some church members once wanted to let the local fire department burn the wooden building—then severely dilapidated and surrounded by new development—as a training exercise, says Pryce Baldwin Jr., a member of the congregation. Today, it’s used for meetings and youth programs.
Baldwin says he has worked to educate the church members and others—some of whom had unknowingly attended Rosenwald schools—about the history of the St. Matthew School.
"The more I travel the state, the more I look for them," he says. "We’re losing a part of history."
Not all of the Rosenwald schools shut down when North Carolina communities began bowing to the integration demands stemming from the 1954 Brown decision; most remained segregated until the mid-1960s. The DuBois school stayed open until 1989 and was used as part of an eight-building high school campus that grew from the original site. It was one of the few Rosenwald schools that became integrated.
Usually, school boards closed those schools because they had not been well-maintained, and because whites objected to sending their children to schools in traditionally black neighborhoods.
Today, with six of the eight buildings boarded up, the campus has a hollow, abandoned feel. The two remaining buildings are used as a gym and a community center.
But the DuBois Rosenwald school has a legion of alumni working to restore it. So far, they have raised enough money to hire an architect and stabilize the structure. About 200 alumni, who still meet each year for a reunion, are working to raise the estimated $1.2 million needed to fully restore the school.
One alumna, Bettie Edwards Murchison, wants at least part of the building to become a museum that will "highlight the struggle African-American children had to get an education."
Murchison, who was one of the first black students that teachers sent to newly integrated white schools in the 1960s, has vivid memories of the graduation ceremonies, May Day events, and proms that made the DuBois school the hub of the community. When a student graduated from high school or even 8th grade, she remembers, it was such a source of pride that family members would come from all over the state for events that lasted a week.
"Graduation was a family and community accomplishment, not just the child’s," she says.
Murchison works next door to the building, as the executive director of the DuBois Center, which provides social services and after-school programs to families. The center wants to create a vocational school and culinary arts school for local students, which could be incorporated into the Rosenwald structure, she said.
"We’re trying to be creative, as much as we have to do," she says.
The era of integration unshered in by the Brown decision brought a downside as well as benefits for teachers and students who had attended Snow Hill Colored High School in Snow Hill, N.C., some alumni say. When they were given access to a better education system and sent to different schools, some say their community’s cohesiveness and determination were damaged.
"When the schools integrated, we gained a lot, but we lost a lot," says JoAnn Stevens, who attended the school in the 1960s and later attended integrated schools. "When we began to get our freedom and rights, we lost some of our unity."
The school, now known as the Rosenwald Center, opened in 1925.
It later became the Greene County Training Center, a common designation for secondary schools that served African-Americans.
Stevens and others remember the site as a place not only for education, but also for love and lessons in life. It was one of the larger Rosenwald schools, with eight classrooms and a large auditorium.
"To a kid who’d never seen too much, it looked like a mansion to me," says Robert Briggs, who began school there as a kindergartner in 1928. He remembers students who arrived in horse- drawn buggies, and others who lived in the countryside and stayed with relatives in town on weeknights in order to receive an education. Parents grew crops of cotton and vegetables to sell to subsidize the school’s programs, he said.
"The teachers had time for children, and love for the children," adds Stevens. "They treated you like part of their family, and you were going to learn."
But many students and teachers also understood that prejudice existed outside those walls.
Gwenoese Smith remembers that her father, the principal, had a fight every time he asked for basic supplies or services from the local school board. "Their thinking was, ‘Why do you need it?’ " she says. "Everything had to be justified."
The school still has a legion of alumni and former teachers in the area, and alumni chapters in Washington, New York, and New Jersey, who want to restore the building as a cultural center.
The dark, red-brick building now appears vacant, with boarded front windows and a dusty driveway. But the narrow vestibule opens into an unexpectedly expansive room filled with colorful reams of fabric. Several African-American women sit at sewing machines fashioning pillows, bed linens, and other textile products. If it weren’t for this local business that rents the space for use as a factory, the former school likely would have been torn down years ago.
So far, the alumni group has raised about $40,000 of the estimated $750,000 needed to restore the school. The main goal, Stevens says, is to raise awareness about the school and its history.
"When I first started talking about Rosenwald, people didn’t know what it was," she says. Even after she explained the history, some people "didn’t grasp the idea that the school was significant."
Other Rosenwald schools do not have such dedicated alumni groups. Some of those schools, though, have determined preservationists looking for buyers with deep pockets and an interest in restoring a significant part of the history of education for blacks. Barbara Wishy has taken on the task of selling the Princeton Graded School, a blighted six-room, brick Rosenwald structure. Wishy, the director of the Endangered Properties Program at Preservation North Carolina, a nonprofit group, says that once a structure is designated "historic," her group can work with owners to place restrictions on the property’s deed to prevent it from being torn down or severely altered after it is sold.
Located on the outskirts of Princeton, a town east of Raleigh, the Princeton Graded School was left to languish after schools were integrated following the Brown decision. A wing of the school was recently used as a day-care center, but the building now sits vacant.
A 1950s addition has been partially demolished, and old furniture, bikes, and boxes have been dumped across the property. Panes of glass have been broken, and inside, old clothing and household objects litter the floors.
The school is owned by Elaine Mabson, who now lives in Maryland. In her application to have the school designated as historic, she says she recalls the buses that would leave before dawn to pick up black children around the countryside, and pass by the large, well-kept school for whites in the center of the town. Her mother, who died in 1999 and left Mabson the building, often told her stories about a man named Mr. Rosenwald who wanted to help them obtain an education.
In 1973, when the building was auctioned, Mabson’s mother was living in Washington and hired a white man to go to North Carolina and bid on the property so it would not be torn down. When some of the local white leaders found out she bought the school, they rezoned the property as "residential," making it difficult to reuse, she said.
"Although they have removed the ‘colored’ and ‘white’ signs to designate territories, people in that town still know where their place is," Mabson wrote in the application. "I do not want anyone to forget how blacks were treated and why that building should stand. It represents the struggle that took place in Princeton in the early 1920s when blacks had the desire to learn, but were denied that right."
The town has since pressured her to tear down the structure, Mabson says. She says she is unable to afford the upkeep, and the zoning restriction makes it hard to run a profitable business there.
"I felt obligated to hold on to it because it meant so much to my mother," she says. "But even the community doesn’t show that much interest as far as looking out for the building."
Preservation North Carolina is marketing the 5,000-square-foot building for $157,500. Wishy is optimistic that, eventually, someone will buy and restore it.
"We want to make sure it’s not only sold, but protected," Wishy says. "We’re not expecting it to be a quick turnover, but it will happen."
Vol. 23, Issue 33, Pages 30-34Published in Print: April 28, 2004, as Crumbling Legacy