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Houses of Learning

One man’s vision meets another man’s philanthropy.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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From involvement in the Tuskegee Institute, Rosenwald moved on to finance a far more ambitious enterprise conceived by Washington: the building of public schoolhouses for Southern blacks. In 1912, when this project was launched, educational opportunities for blacks in the rural South were severely limited, and the school facilities that did exist tended to be log cabins, staffed by underpaid teachers working in appalling conditions.

“You need a schoolhouse,” Washington had often told his students studying to be teachers. “You cannot teach school in log cabins without doors, windows, lights, floor or apparatus. You need a schoolhouse and, if you are in earnest, the people will help you.”

Rosenwald began by launching a fund-raising drive that employed the then-novel mechanism of matching funds (to be supplied in labor, materials, or cash). He insisted on this arrangement so that the recipients themselves would regard the school-building program not as charity but as an enterprise in which they themselves were integral partners. The campaign was a huge success. Poor blacks across the region pledged cows and calves and sold eggs, hens, corn,
cotton, berries, and other produce to generate funds; children donated their pennies. By asking beneficiaries themselves to contribute, Rosenwald stimulated local philanthropy and investment.

The program that Rosenwald began funding in 1912 had its beginnings in one small Alabama county, where the first Rosenwald schools (as they came to be called) were constructed. Rosenwald’s generous funding continued and expanded after Washington’s death in 1915. In 1916, Rosenwald agreed to pay a third of the cost of all additional schools; between 1917 and his death in 1932, he could claim credit for the construction of 4,977 public schools serving more than 600,000 children throughout the South. By 1932, as Deutsch writes, “there was a Rosenwald school in every county with a significant black population in the South.”

In telling the story of the schools that Rosenwald and Washington created, Deutsch includes poignant vignettes about some future black leaders (such as Representative John Lewis) who received their earliest education in them. Deutsch writes that in his memoir, Walking with the Wind, Lewis recalls “the fish fries, picnics, and carnivals that neighbors would organize to raise money for supplies for the school.” Education, wrote Lewis to his parents, “represented an almost mythical key to the kingdom of America’s riches, the kingdom so long denied our race.”

David G. Dalin is the coauthor (with Jonathan D. Sarna) of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience.