Legislation would honor Rosenwald through National Parks designation

One of the first Rosenwald schools, in Chehaw, Ala.

After years of building strong public support in communities across the nation, the National Parks Conservation Association celebrated the introduction of the Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools Study Act, requiring the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resources study of the sites associated with the life and legacy of noted philanthropist and businessman Julius Rosenwald, with a special focus on the Rosenwald Schools.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Reps. Danny Davis of Illinois and Steve Cohen of Tennessee officially introduced the historic legislation on June 13. The bill is the first step toward creating a multi-site national park to preserve Rosenwald’s legacy, which would also be the first national park honoring a Jewish American.

The son of German Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald earned financial success after joining the leadership team at Sears Roebuck in 1895, transforming the small business into a retail powerhouse of the early 1900s. Rosenwald used his fame and fortune for the benefit of humankind, focusing his efforts towards the advancement of education for African Americans in the South, which at the time was deeply segregated.

Through a collaborative project, Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, activist and leader of the Tuskegee Institute, changed the course of African American education in the United States. Over a 20-year period, Rosenwald partnered with African American communities from Washington to Texas, providing seed funding for the construction of 5,357 schoolhouses and other educational buildings in 15 states.

“The story of Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist that changed the dynamics of education for African Americans in the early 20th century, and the thousands of schoolhouses he helped construct, is extraordinary. These schools are an important part of our country’s history, and must never be forgotten,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Thanks to the leadership and tremendous political support of Senator Durbin and Congressmen Davis and Cohen, and the efforts of communities and partners organizations across the country, we are one step closer to preserving Rosenwald’s legacy for millions of people to experience now and for generations to come. NPCA will continue to work tirelessly until the Rosenwald Schools are part of our nation’s Park System.”

Rosenwald Schools — many of them basic, one or two-room structures — were a source of pride and affection in their communities. Local organizations have honored and preserved Rosenwald Schools for decades, and in 2016, NPCA, the National Trust and a group of committed advocates launched the nationwide Rosenwald Park Campaign to establish the Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park as a unit of the National Park System.

“Julius Rosenwald’s legacy is inextricably linked to the advancement of African Americans in education, science and the arts,” said Alan Spears, NPCA’s Director of Cultural Resources. “His philanthropic activities enhanced opportunities for individuals and communities to thrive. It’s rare that the gifts of one man can touch and benefit so many and in ways so profound. We still have much to learn from and be inspired by in the story of Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools.”

Rescuing remaining Rosenwalds

There are several efforts in the region devoted to preserving Rosenwald Schools. Of the over 5,000 schools that were built, a very small number remain standing.

The River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville acquired one of the few remaining Rosenwalds in Louisiana in 2001, moving the Central Agricultural School building from Convent, where it was slated for demolition. The building is a rare four-room school house, and is situated in downtown Donaldsonville, not far from the museum.

As part of the museum’s 25th anniversary celebration, there is an effort to raise $250,000 to finish the project, including adding electricity and plumbing to the building.

The museum plans to use it for community events, STEM camps, music and theater. A few events have already been staged there, with the help of generators and portable restrooms.

The museum will have its 25th anniversary gala on Oct. 6 at the Water Campus in Baton Rouge, with proceeds going toward the Rosenwald project.

Oak Grove School in Gallion, one of Alabama’s few remaining Rosenwald buildings, was placed on the 2019 Alabama Historical Commission Places in Peril list. The list highlighted Rosenwald Schools in general a few years ago, but this year noted that “there is a lack of organizational funding and deferred maintenance that has left the school with urgent repairs needing to be made.”

The Oak Grove school was built in 1925 and served the African American community in Hale County as a Two-Teacher School. The school relied on community investment when it was built and served the community until 1968. The building was listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Now, the school is owned by the Oak Grove School Heritage Center, which needs help with planning and funding.

In Hineshaw, Ga., there is an effort to have the Liberty County School System protect the historical Hineshaw Shaw Rosenwald School that was built there in 1931. The building was used until the early 1990s and is now “in utter disrepair.” The Liberty County High School Museum held an exhibit about the school last fall.