In 1856, Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia. After emancipation he worked as a laborer in the coal mines and salt furnaces of West Virginia and later moved on to an education at Hampton Institute. In 1881 he became the first teacher for a class of 30 adults at the Normal School for Colored Teachers in Tuskegee, Ala. As a creative idea-man, Washington led this school’s development into Tuskegee Institute, then became a nationally respected leader of the African American community, as well as a highly effective, politically astute advocate for the creation of educational opportunities for African Americans.
During the early years of the previous century there was little public funding for the education of African American children. Existing school structures were in terrible shape and in many rural communities there were no schools, forcing teaching to take place in churches and other private buildings.
In addressing this issue, Washington started a program which built about two dozen rural secondary schools by 1911. When he needed financial backing to continue this program, he found his angel in Julius Rosenwald, the young, energetic president of Sears Roebuck and Company and a member of the Tuskegee Institute Board of Directors.
In his efforts to work for racial equality, Rosenwald had already funded YMCAs around the country where African Americans could stay when they traveled since most hotels excluded them. He assisted African American artists and scholars including Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, dance pioneer and political activist Katherine Dunham, the author of ‘The Invisible Man,’ Ralph Ellison, and extraordinary singer Marian Anderson.
Born in Alabama
The school building program started with a pilot plan for six Alabama schools, two in each of three counties, Macon, Lee, and Montgomery. Over its 20-year course — 1912 through 1932 — more than 5,000 schools were built in 15 states. By 1928 one third of the South’s rural African American schoolchildren and teachers were part of a Rosenwald School.
Very specific state-of-the-art design and implementation plans for these schools were initially developed by architecture professors at Tuskegee and were modified over the years. These plans included instructions for every aspect of these simple, clean-lined buildings right down to blackboard size, paint color, desk design, floor cleaner, and arrangement of window shades for the large windows which allowed the best use of natural light.
Although these schools are usually called Rosenwald Schools, the Rosenwald Fund alone did not build these schools. Their funding was actually a matching grant set up. One third of the funds came from Rosenwald, one third from the community, and one third from public funds such as taxes. The school’s community had to raise funds to match the grant from the Rosenwald Fund and often raised more than the required amount. The community also had to maintain the schools in many cases.
The grassroots support which gave the local community a hands-on, vested interest in the school was a key element to the success of this program. Community leaders started building campaigns. Churches donated land or committees bought land and its members might even cut down the trees and saw the lumber for the building.Rural wage earners pledged from their earnings or pledged their labor. Others sold chickens, planted an extra acre of cotton, or organized penny drives, box parties, and community sporting events.
A former slave who donated his life savings of $38 for his community’s school hoped “to see the children of my grandchildren have a chance.” Millions of dollars were raised in these communities for the Rosenwald Schools, which often became the center of the community, hosting suppers, fundraisers, and meetings. Many of the schools continued to function into the 1960s and even beyond in some locations.
in Walker County
Alabama had 389 Rosenwald Schools and nine of them were located in Walker County. This number is substantially higher than the surrounding counties as Tuscaloosa had three, Fayette and Marion had two, and Jefferson, Cullman and Blount counties had one. The Walker County schools were built from 1920 to 1927 with the three-teacher Dora School noted as the 1,000th Rosenwald School. Based on the research that is complete up to this point, Walker County had more three-teacher or larger schools than the other counties in Alabama.
The Wyatt School, built for one teacher, was the smallest Rosenwald School in this county. The Walker County Training School, built for six teachers, was the largest. The Oakman School was the only two-teacher building in the county.
Our other schools included the three-teacher Jasper School, Cordova School, and Lincoln School plus the five-teacher Carbon Hill School and Carbon Hill School No. 2 (Dunbar).
Marion Constant attended the Oakman Rosenwald School for her elementary school years. She remembers her teacher, Mrs. L.T. Jones, who taught every subject to about 30 students and organized the school choir. The potbellied stove was started by the janitor every morning, but tended to by the students during the school day.
In Marion’s first school years there was no lunchroom so one of the older students went to a nearby store to buy their snacks. She smiled as she recalled the basic foundation of her educational experience. “We had a wonderful time at school. We enjoyed going to school.” As she pointed out where the school building once stood, not very far from her current home in Oakman, she remembers her school as a hub for the community with events on the weekends and ballgames on the field behind the school.
Marion graduated with her 46 other classmates from the Walker County Training School in 1965. She was offered a full scholarship to Princeton University but opted to stay closer to home and attend Tuskegee University and ultimately graduated in nursing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She started her nursing career at People’s Hospital, then worked at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital and UAB Hospital before returning to Walker Regional Medical Center. Marion retired in October after a successful, more than 40 year career in the medical field, but keeps her hand in nursing by teaching clinicals at Bevill State Community College.
Marion believes that her Rosenwald School days played an important role in lining up the course for her life. She explained that she “always knew I would have an education,” but the school provided a nurturing environment where the concept of the importance of education was strengthened every day. Marion’s thoughts are echoed in the words of Barbara Mahone, a former student at the Shiloh Rosenwald School in Notasulga, Alabama. “When you think about a Rosenwald School, it really reinforced that education is such a special gift and that it is something we should not take for granted. That it requires a lot of hard work. But through that hard work, you can become a very, very responsible person throughout your life.” Both these women feel that these schools built character and reinforced values that enabled them to grow into the strong, successful people they are today.
Reviving the Buildings
The Rosenwald School building program played a critical role in educating African American children in areas where their educational opportunities were essentially non-existent. These schools provided quality educational foundations for the students and the buildings themselves stood as a concrete symbol of a community’s pride, hard work, and commitment to the future success of its children. While the inherent human value of these schools is indestructible, unfortunately the structures themselves are not and many were abandoned and left to the whim of the elements.
As the significance of the Rosenwald Schools moved to the forefront in recent years, some of our fellow Alabama communities have joined with other Southern communities to find ways to come together again in restoring and giving new life to the survivor buildings. This year the Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation awarded one of its eight grants to the Tankersley Rosenwald School in Montgomery County. This revived building, given new life with the work of dedicated volunteers, will function as a farm cooperative, location for senior citizen services, and general community center.
Other Alabama communities have benefited from Lowe’s grant program which has awarded $4 million for 53 projects since 2006. The Emory/Tunstall Rosenwald School in Greensboro was in use as a school until 1962 but had fallen on hard times over the years and ultimately was used for hay storage. Rebuilt under this grant program and numerous volunteer hours, it now serves as a community and cultural heritage center. In Notasulga, the Shiloh Rosenwald School is revived as a museum and a community outreach center housing multiple programs including GED, nutrition, and health classes, as well as job preparation and job searching instruction.
The incredible partnership between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington built thousands of schools all over the South that forged communities and provided strong educational foundations for thousands of students. The seeds for these schools were created right here in Alabama and were sown and thrived right here in Walker County in our nine Rosenwald Schools. Once again, we can smile in quiet amazement as we think to ourselves, “There’s no place like home.”
(Note to Readers: If you have any information to share about the Rosenwald Schools, please call Margaret Dabbs at (205) 387-2890.)