The story of how Black people, just a handful of years after slavery ended, managed to grow a solid middle class without access to so many of America’s public schools is not well-known. That story involves Black ingenuity, an unusual friendship between a Jewish philanthropist and a conservative Black educator, and a widespread desire among Black parents for their children to be provided the same quality of education as white children.
Aware of the crucial economic role education can play for the descendants of slaves, Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist and Sears, Roebuck president, along with Booker T. Washington, the principal of Tuskeegee Institute, worked with Black communities across the south to build more than 5,000 schools for Black children.
This story has been largely washed from our nation’s collective memory but some of those 5,000 school houses that Black communities built and staffed, still stand in plain sight.
Education Week spoke with scholars and national park leaders about the Rosenwald schools’ history and the fight to preserve their legacy.