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Conference Is a Salute To Rosenwald’s Vision

Interest in finding and preserving the remaining historically black "Rosenwald schools" is on the rise, speakers at a recent conference here on the schools said.

More than 5,000 of the structures were built across the South in the early 1900s for African-Americans with the help of money from Sears Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald. Many of the schools have been torn down or left to decay, though the recent 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka helped spotlight this largely forgotten chapter in the history of segregated schooling. ("Crumbling Legacy," April 28, 2004.)

"Many of these schools are gone, but an intense interest in their history is growing," said David Brown, an executive vice president with the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, which sponsored the May 21-22 event.

About 150 educators, historians, and preservationists, many of whom attended Rosenwald schools, gathered at Fisk University here to learn about the history of Rosenwald schools and about strategies for saving the remaining structures.

The conference was part of the National Trust’s Rosenwald Schools Initiative, which was formed in 2002, the same year that the organization named the schools to its annual "most endangered" list of historic sites. The trust hopes to bring more awareness to the history of the schools, as well as document and restore the ones still standing.

The conference was held in Nashville in part because Fisk University holds the largest collection of records and archives on Rosenwald structures. The documents came from the Nashville office set up by Mr. Rosenwald in the early 1920s to oversee the growing construction program.

Conference sessions addressed how to use the university’s Rosenwald archives, research the history of a school, and get Rosenwald buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sessions were also held to discuss fund raising and the reuse of school buildings.

Two of Mr. Rosenwald’s grandchildren spoke about his contributions to the education and lives of African- Americans and offered new financial aid to the cause.

Although Mr. Rosenwald’s best-known legacy is that of the schools for black students, the philanthropist also contributed money to build health- care centers, libraries, and a housing development in Chicago for African- Americans. He also gave significant donations to help train blacks to become doctors, nurses, and teachers.

"He was one of the few prominent leaders who genuinely believed black and white races should be equal," a radical notion in the early 1900s, said Peter Ascoli, a grandson of Mr. Rosenwald and a history professor at the University of Chicago.

Some historians, though, have criticized the school construction program because it built schools that continued to segregate blacks and whites.

But Mr. Rosenwald was a realist, Mr. Ascoli argued, who knew that abolition of school segregation in that era would be impossible, and hoped instead that the construction program would help blacks and whites work together and forge bonds.

Alice Rosenwald, a granddaughter of Julius Rosenwald, announced that her family was offering a $100,000 matching grant to the National Trust to help its efforts in restoring the schools.

Mr. Brown also announced that the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain’s foundation, based in Lebanon, Tenn., had donated $15,000 to help preserve Fisk University’s Rosenwald records and put them online.

Fifth graders in the Rock Hill, S.C., school district are getting the chance to spend a day re-creating the experiences of students who attended Rosenwald schools during the 1930s.

Queenie Little, the social studies coordinator for the 16,000-student district, said district officials had been trying to figure out how to use a three-room Rosenwald school that it owns when she proposed to use it as a center for hands-on learning.

Now, the 5th grade classes spend one day each at the school, attending classes taught by former Rosenwald students. They eat lunches that would have been typical for the Depression era, learn about growing cotton and other crops to supplement the school’s finances, and help clean the building—just as the students did in the 1930s.

Before entering the school, the students study segregation. The lessons are part of a broader curriculum that also teaches about local Native American history and Civil War battles. "We wanted to show Rock Hill from all perspectives," Ms. Little said.

—By Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 23, Issue 39, Page 12

Published in Print: June 9, 2004, as Reporter's Notebook
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