Two new exhibits detail the Rosenwald Schools story

Students and teachers at Jefferson Jacob School, in Prospect, Ky., circa 1920s.Photo by Andrew Feiler/The Filson Historical Society

Two exhibits focusing on the partnership between a Black academic and a Jewish philanthropist to expand educational opportunities for Southern Blacks a century ago are opening in the region.

“A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America” is opening on Nov. 16 at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in New Orleans, and “History Lives On: Preserving Alabama’s Rosenwald Schools” is already on display at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

Rosenwald, president of Sears, contributed to Black institutions in Chicago. In 1911, he and his rabbi traveled to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which Washington had founded. Washington asked Rosenwald to serve on the school’s board.

In 1912, Rosenwald made numerous charitable gifts in honor of his 50th birthday, including $25,000 to Tuskegee. Toward the end of the year, Washington asked Rosenwald for permission to use $2800 on a pilot program to build schools for rural Blacks.

A grant of $300 each went to help build six schools in central Alabama — Notasulga and Brownsville in Macon County, Loachapoka and Chewacla in Lee County, and Big Zion and Madison Park in Montgomery County.

Every Rosenwald school was built with matching funds from the local community, and black communities rallied to raise the funds needed to become part of the project. In many cases, the white community also chipped in.

In 1914, Rosenwald gave an additional $30,000 for another 100 rural Alabama schools, followed by funds for 200 more schools in 1916, opening the project to other states.

Rosenwald organized the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to administer the program. He was of the opinion that a foundation should have set goals and a timetable for disbursing all of its assets and go out of business, since one never knows what the long-term future needs in society would be.

By the time the fund ended in 1932, about 5,000 schools had been built throughout the South.

Forty percent of Black children in the South attended a Rosenwald school at the height of the program. Black communities and white supporters advocated for educational opportunities, raised funds, and maintained the schools for decades.

Among the thousands of graduates of Rosenwald schools are poet Maya Angelou, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Little Rock Nine pioneer Carlotta Walls LaNier, and Congressman John Lewis.

By the time of widespread school integration in the 1960s, many of Rosenwald Schools were deemed too small or otherwise unsuitable for continued use. While some of these schools today have found new life as community centers, museums, and church facilities, most have disappeared from the landscape or are under threat of deterioration and destruction.

The New Orleans exhibit consists of photographs and stories collected by Andrew Feiler, a fifth-generation Jewish Georgian. Feiler tracked down and photographed more than 100 of the 500 schools still surviving across 15 Southern states.

Feiler believes the story of the Rosenwald schools is particularly resonant now. “In deeply segregated 1912 America, Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington reached across divides of race, religions, and region and fundamentally changed this nation for the better,” he said. “It’s especially fitting that these photographs and stories that bring people into this history are being hosted by the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.”

Through Feiler’s exhibition, the Museum hopes to raise awareness of a chapter of history that is still not widely known. “MSJE is proud to be part of bringing this story in front of the public eye. The history of the Rosenwald schools is also the history of the South and the many diverse people and actors who have shaped it,” says Kenneth Hoffman, the museum’s executive director.

The exhibit will open on Nov 16 with a 6:30 p.m. program featuring Feiler, along with a book signing. There will be a preview meet and greet for members and patrons at 5:30 p.m.

MSJE will run a full program of events centered around the exhibit, including the opening reception talk by Feiler; screenings of “Rosenwald,” a documentary film produced by Aviva Kempner, on Jan. 18, Feb. 28 and April 4 at 6 p.m., and a matinee on March 10; a lecture by Stephanie Deutsch, author of “You Need a Schoolhouse” on March 7 at 6 p.m.; and a panel discussion with Rosenwald School graduates, date to be announced. A bespoke field trip has been designed to introduce students to this important part of American history.

This exhibition is supported by Bill and Susan Hess and the Cahn Family Foundation. Bill Hess is Rosenwald’s great-grandson. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) is a media partner. The exhibit will run through April 21.

Alabama exhibit

The Alabama exhibit is the culmination of a research project entitled “Realizing Rosenwald.” This multiphase project began in 2020 as an interdisciplinary collaboration with Auburn University Professors Junshan Liu, Building Science; David Smith, Graphic Design; and Gorham Bird, Architecture. The research focuses on the identification and documentation of extant Rosenwald Schools in Alabama using the latest technology to digitally measure and survey the existing places.

In addition to the team at Auburn, Dr. Kwesi Daniels, architecture professor at Tuskegee University, served as a key collaborator for the exhibit design, building on a 20-year partnership between Auburn and Tuskegee to preserve Alabama’s remaining Rosenwald Schools. Many of the artifacts featured in the exhibit are on loan from the Mt. Sinai Community Center, housed in the only remaining Rosenwald School in Autauga County.

Visitors to the exhibit will learn not only about the individuals who started the Rosenwald Schools and the buildings themselves, but also about local communities across Alabama who worked to raise funds and to build and sustain these schools over generations. The exhibit will also explore today’s efforts by community members and alumni to preserve Alabama’s remaining historic Rosenwald buildings and the rich legacies they represent.

“We hope the public will gain a better understanding of the resilience and self-determination of the communities that worked to build and maintain these schools to educate generations of children,” said Gorham Bird, assistant professor of architecture and lead exhibit designer. “It’s been a privilege to meet and learn about the experience of alumni, to see their ongoing commitment to preserving the history of Alabama’s Rosenwald schools, and to share their stories through our research and this exhibit.”

Archives Director Steve Murray said “the Archives is grateful for this opportunity to work with Auburn University in amplifying the stories of Alabamians who collaborated in the early 20th century to expand educational opportunities for African Americans, and of those who are striving today to keep alive the legacies of these vital community institutions.”

The exhibit opened on Oct. 17 and will be displayed through May.