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The Rosenwald Schools Digital Collection in Southern Places

The images and documents included here were collected by the Center for Historic Preservation on site visits to locations across Tennessee and in nearby states. Since 1994, the Center for Historic Preservation has worked with local partners to facilitate preservation, as well as to document, assess, and collect historical research on these important buildings. In many communities these schools are being restored and re-purposed as community gathering places. This digital collection preserves the records of this initiative.

View images and histories of Rosenwald schools

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What is a Rosenwald School?

The Rosenwald rural school building initiative was an effort to improve public education for African American children. By 1928, one in five rural African American schools in the South was a Rosenwald school. These schools housed one third of the region’s rural black students and teachers. At its conclusion in 1932, the program had produced 4,977 new schools and several hundred shop buildings and teachers’ homes in fifteen states.

The Tuskegee Plan

Booker T. Washington, principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, in Alabama, considered school development integral to building African American communities. In 1912, he approached Sears, Roebuck and Company president and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to develop a plan for rural school development. Rosenwald had a history of matching grant money for building projects and considered Washington’s idea a worthy cause. He made a donation to the Tuskegee Institute to build schools in Alabama.


The Julius Rosenwald Fund

By 1917, the project was placed under the direction of the Rosenwald Fund, which offered matching funds to communities who could raise funds, secure land, and provide labor for the construction of the schools. The Fund established an office in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1920, providing grants and architectural plans for rural black schools across the south. In accordance with Washington’s philosophy, which advocated economic advancement for African Americans through vocational education, the Rosenwald fund garnered support from both black and white community members as a viable solution to the need for black schools.


Design

Rosenwald schools had a significant impact on the development of rural schools across the south. Influenced by progressive concerns involving sanitation, lighting, ventilation, and other factors considered in urban schools, the Rosenwald design plans incorporated these factors into their construction.

Built between 1913 and 1920, the Tuskegee Plans featured three building types, the smallest of which included a classroom, an industrial classroom, a kitchen, a library, and cloakrooms. They included large batteries of windows to improve lighting and designated spaces for industrial education. Buildings were raised on short piers to improve ventilation.

Built between 1920 and 1928, the Community School Plan was prepared by Fletcher P. Dressler, a professor of school hygiene and architecture, and Samuel L. Smith, director of the Rosenwald Fund office in Nashville. These designs offered two basic floorplans and featured tall, narrow window framing to maximize natural lighting. Windows were limited to one side of the classroom to reduce eye strain and contained sliding doors and removable blackboards to make the classrooms multipurpose. The buildings were raised on enclosed short piers to emphasize cross ventilation.


Legacy

By its close in 1932, the Rosenwald Fund had succeeded in improving the quality of education for rural African American school children in the South. A unique architectural legacy, the schools and surrounding buildings served as focal points of rural black communities for generations. Though the Rosenwald schools did not challenge segregation, they inspired statewide wide expansion of public school infrastructure and vocational training programs for all students. Fisk University, which houses the Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives, has created a digital public database of Rosenwald Schools with detailed information on each school. The Tennessee Division of Archaeology is currently conducting an archaeological survey of Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee. Efforts through area universities as well as state preservation agencies have combined to give the history of Rosenwald schools the legacy and recognition it deserves.


More Information:

Fisk University Rosenwald database, http://rosenwald.fisk.edu

Hoffschwelle, Mary S. Preserving Rosenwald Schools. Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2003.

“History of the Rosenwald School Program - National Trust for Historic Preservation.” Preservationnation.org. http://www.preservationnation.org/rosenwald/history.html#.v880tvkrjpg

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