Education for African American children in the early twentieth century underwent dramatic change with the help of a Chicago-based Jewish philanthropist named Julius Rosenwald.
Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., founded the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917. While millions of Americans during the Great Depression were familiar with the Sears catalog, they did not know that by 1937 the Rosenwald Fund had constructed over 5,300 primary school buildings in fifteen states – enough facilities to accommodate one-third of all African American children in the United States South.
Public education took a different path in the South compared to other parts of the United States. There were many factors at play here. The major industry of the South, cotton, set it apart from the industrial North and the more varied economy of the West. The bi-racial nature of the South was another distinctive feature of this region, with nine out of ten African Americans living there at the beginning of the twentieth century. Most African Americans worked as agricultural laborers, and three out of four black farmers in the South were tenant farmers or sharecroppers who did not own their own land. Both involved long-term contracts where sharecropper or tenant farmers borrowed the necessary supplies to produce that year’s crop against the future crop yield. Exploitative interest rates and the falling price of cotton ensnared these farmers deeper and deeper into debt. As other parts of the nation increasingly embraced universal public education, it remained unclear what kind of education system, if any, could be compatible with a system of labor based on keeping tenant farmers in peonage.
The state of education in the South trailed far behind other parts of the nation, and education for African American children was in especially dire conditions at the turn of the twentieth century. If a rural black community had a public school at all, it was a crude building supplied, at best, with outdated textbooks. Lack of supplies was compounded by teachers who were often inadequately trained and paid poorly. Because of the need for agricultural labor, schools typically only met for three or four months out of the year.
The Rosenwald Fund’s role in crafting this successful collaboration among local communities, local government, and large-scale philanthropy is only part of the story. What made the Rosenwald Fund’s efforts so effective was that it tapped into what historian James D. Anderson calls the strong “self-help tradition” in black southern communities and the high value that black southerners placed on education. These traditions led to a system of “double taxation” where black southerners paid school taxes to their local government that were used to fund white public education and then essentially taxed themselves again by privately raising funds for their own schools. When they could not afford to contribute additional money, black southerners donated building materials, labor, or whatever else they could.
Industrialization and the Emergence of Philanthropic Foundations
Late-nineteenth-century America was marked by explosive industrial growth, large-scale urbanization, and innovations in technology and transportation that remade the landscape. These developments affected each region of the U.S. differently, partly due to Republican tariff and monetary policies that redistributed wealth from the impoverished agricultural South to the industrial North. After Reconstruction ended, the United States resumed the gold standard which required all money to be backed by gold and reduced the supply of circulating money, thus deflating its value. The gold standard brought stability to U.S. currency and encouraged foreign investment, but created new hardships for tenant farmers and sharecroppers since it made debts more difficult to pay off. Meanwhile, the post-Civil War tariff policy insulated American industries from foreign competition, which helped Northern industries develop more rapidly. For people in the West and the South whose livelihoods depended mostly on agricultural exports, these tariffs meant higher prices for the manufactured goods they bought. Because agricultural commodities like cotton were not insulated from foreign markets the same way industrial goods were, it also meant lower prices for the cotton that they exported.
Along with the industrial boom in the North came the unprecedented wealth of a few industrialists, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller—the so-called robber barons— as well as new social ills. Responding to the emergent problems of industrialization, a group of extremely wealthy industrialists began to experiment with a new institutional form of philanthropy, the modern foundation. They believed that by applying principles of business to charity, they could eliminate inefficiency and address the root causes of suffering. The impulse to do so was not just a matter of goodwill. Since they believed that society was interconnected, these industrialists thought that their failure to help alleviate the most pressing social ills would have dire consequences for society as a whole. While many were grateful for the aid, others felt that philanthropies undermined their attempts to improve their wages and working conditions—an excuse for “robber barons” to exploit the masses while pretending to have society’s best interest in mind. For African Americans in the South, their relationship to philanthropy was complicated. For African Americans, the key was leverage the system in order to build a better educational system for their children.
The Education Traditions of Black Southerners
Struggles over African American education had deep roots dating back to slavery. Despite harsh laws forbidding enslaved people from learning to read, by 1860 around 5 percent of enslaved people had obtained some level of literacy. A slave memoir written by an African American woman named Susie King Taylor illustrates the high value placed on education before and after emancipation. From age seven in Savannah, Georgia, Taylor and her two younger siblings would walk half a mile to Mrs. Woodhouse’s, “underground school,” with their books, “wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them.” After about two years, Susie had mastered the alphabet and started going to Mrs. Mary Beasley’s school until May 1860, “when she told my grandmother she had taught me all she knew.” When she was 14, Taylor escaped with her family to the Georgia Sea Islands during the Civil War where she opened a school for other African American refugees and later travelled with the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry teaching the soldiers how to read.
As Taylor’s story demonstrates, education was an avenue to self-reliance. As Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery revealed, this fervor extended to all ages:
“Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education. It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn.”
–Booker T. Washington
Literacy meant freedom – literally. The Fifteenth Amendment explicitly gave emancipated African American men the right to vote, so the ability to read meant emancipated men could correctly fill out a voting ballot. The negotiation of new labor contracts also made reading a prized skill, as planters often made contracts designed to ensnare their laborers into a system of debt peonage.
Recognizing the power of literacy, African Americans used their vote to influence education policy. The experience of slavery drove emancipated African Americans to lead the campaign for universal public education on a large scale in the South. They used their vote to influence educational policy by running for office as school officials, voting for pro-black education candidates, gaining influence over educational legislation through the election of black legislatures, using their vote as leverage when white voters split, and lobbying local school boards directly.
Despite these strategies for promoting public education, both black and white southerners were limited by a dearth of financial resources and a lack of popular support for public schools, especially among white politicians. The South also lacked the bureaucratic apparatus necessary to coordinate a public school system on a state- or region-wide level. As a result, black and, to an extent, white communities only sporadically established schools by agreeing to provide most of the funds required to build the school in order to convince the local government to establish and maintain a public school. This strategy of “leveraging the state” became popular among black communities, especially after disenfranchisement.
Disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, and the Nadir of Black Education
When Reconstruction ended in 1877 and federal troops officially left the South, African American voters became even more vulnerable to the violence and intimidation tactics used to discourage them from voting. Despite this vulnerability, African American political activity continued with moderate success as black voters were able to unite with disgruntled white Democrats and white Republicans to form new “fusion” parties—and later the Populist Party— across the South. These parties challenged the “Redeemer” Democrats that had toppled Reconstruction but alienated many white voters for representing only “elite” interests. Fusion parties united black and white voters together through shared grievances such as education, the gold standard, and tariffs.
To meet the new political challenge posed by fusion parties, white Democrats devised a race-baiting strategy that equated black political power with black sexual domination. By forging a political coalition with black men and thereby augmenting their political influence, Democratic propaganda argued, disaffected white Democrats had inadvertently made white women vulnerable to black rapists. By this logic, it was imperative to the safety and honor of white women that white voters returned to the Democratic Party.
To secure the gains won by a combination of propaganda, violence, and voter fraud, Democratic state legislatures in the South one-by-one adopted laws that would ensure the disenfranchisement of almost all African American men along with many lower-class white men. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and whites-only primary elections all helped create a “Solid South” by eliminating the possibility of any realistic challenge to the Democratic Party. In Louisiana before poll taxes and literacy tests in 1896, there were 130,334 registered black voters; after only 1,342. Around the same time, the Plessey vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 legalized segregation, thus further crystalizing the Jim Crow system of second-class citizenship for African Americans.
Many southern state governments decreased funding for black education or maintained the same minimal level as they greatly expanded white education. In North Carolina, spending on education in the 1890s, although very low, was relatively equal for white and black children. After disenfranchisement the government spent four times more per year on new schools for white children than for black children, and this discrepancy persisted well into the twentieth century. Although black communities still implemented the strategy of “leveraging the state” by contributing private funds, the hostility of local governments to their needs and a shortage of cash due to the debt peonage system often undermined those efforts. Enter: Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald’s interest in building schools for black children gave African American communities a new tool to harness in their political battle for quality education.
Famous Friends: Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington
Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1862, Julius Rosenwald was the son of German Jewish clothing merchants who secured a comfortable living by selling Union uniforms during the Civil War. Rosenwald moved to New York at age sixteen to apprentice at a relative’s clothing company. By age 23, he started his own business selling men’s suits in Chicago. There he met Richard Sears, and in 1895, he bought a quarter of the soon-to-be infamous mail order company Sears, Roebuck. After Sears passed away, Rosenwald served as CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 1908 to 1924, during which time the company grew to be the world’s largest retailer. As a result, Rosenwald amassed an estimated fortune of $200 million by the end of the 1920s.
Historian Peter Ascoli gives a biographical account of Julius Rosenwald and explains the origins of his interest in philanthropy.
Although not exactly a rags-to-riches story, Rosenwald achieved immense success from relatively humble beginnings and with little formal education. He was acutely aware of rising anti-Semitism both in America and in Europe as well as the long history of racism against the Jewish people. His awareness of prejudice and his understanding of himself as a “self-made man” made Rosenwald open to cultivating a close relationship with the well-known “Wizard of Tuskegee,” Booker T. Washington.
Washington was the principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and, after his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895, most prominent white people considered him to be the official spokesperson of and gatekeeper to the African American community. When a friend sent Rosenwald Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery, it resonated with Rosenwald. In his autobiography, Washington tells the story of his journey from an illiterate enslaved youth in Virginia to an internationally renowned educator and statesman. Washington designed his autobiography to function in part as a fundraising aid to win over the opinion of wealthy industrialists so that they would consider contributing money to black education. To do this, Washington presented himself as a man of character—hardworking, persevering, self-made, and successful—qualities that made him quintessentially American.
Not only did Washington’s biography pique Rosenwald’s interest in the so-called “Negro problem,” it also provided a philosophical basis for Rosenwald’s interest in helping African Americans that dovetailed with the contemporary Social Darwinist worldview. This attitude was expressed in the important 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessey v. Ferguson that legalized state sanctioned segregation. In that decision, the Supreme Court used widely accepted notions of the racial inferiority of African Americans as the basis to declare segregation as constitutionally legal. According to Social Darwinists (and the Supreme Court), it was immoral for the U.S. government to treat people of all races the same when in fact nature dictates that some races are inferior to others:
“…if one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”
–Supreme Court Opinion, Justice Henry Billings Brown, 1896
Although Rosenwald felt that African American education was a worthy cause for his monetary support, he accepted contemporary notions of black racial inferiority. Instead of championing equality, Rosenwald adopted Washington’s rhetorical argument that the fate of white America was tied to that of black America.
“We whites of America must begin to realize that Booker T. Washington was right when he said that it was impossible to hold a man in the gutter without staying there with him, because if you get up, he will get up. We do not want to remain in the gutter. We, therefore, must help the Negro to rise.”
After meeting Rosenwald, Washington, ever the cunning politician and fundraiser, immediately began grooming Rosenwald to serve on Tuskegee Institute’s board of trustees. Washington convinced Rosenwald to visit Tuskegee and wrote to Rosenwald frequently. By selling Rosenwald a philosophy of racial uplift that emphasized individual hard work instead of structural changes, Washington appealed to Rosenwald’s notion of himself as a self-made man. Within a few months, Rosenwald joined the Tuskegee board of trustees and was donating substantial sums of money both to Tuskegee and other African American causes.
Old Strategy, New Brand: the Rosenwald Schoolhouse Program
The school building program started in 1912 when Rosenwald gave Washington a $25,000 donation in honor of his own 50th birthday. He instructed Washington to use the money to support schools similar to Tuskegee.
To celebrate his 50th birthday Rosenwald gave to a number of institutions and charities, including $25,000 to Booker T. Washington. This was part of his “Give While you Live” philosophy that each generation was responsible for addressing the problems of its age.
Washington suggested that with part of the money Rosenwald help build six schools in rural Alabama near Tuskegee. Washington framed the project as an “experiment” where money for the new schools would be raised in the rural community and then matched by the Rosenwald money. Washington neglected to mention that a similar cost-sharing program for the construction of new schools had already been successfully implemented by another philanthropy, the Jeanes Fund, on a small scale (46 schools in Macon County, Alabama) before the primary advocate for the program within the Jeanes Fund, Henry H. Rogers, died in 1909. He also declined to mention that this cost-sharing strategy had deep roots in the post-emancipation South. By framing the program as both an innovative experiment and as a way to foster a sense of responsibility within black communities by requiring them to raise part of the funds themselves, Washington tailored this plan to Rosenwald’s sensibilities.
The six “experimental schools” project was so successful that Rosenwald committed to 100 more schools, pledging up to $350 per school and up to $30,000 total. The expansion came with a more formal agreement that stipulated the necessity of local government support. Instead of donating half of the money for the schools (with the other half coming from black communities), Rosenwald pledged between 25 to 33 percent of the cost and required that local governments in addition to black communities contribute the remaining expenses. The money from community and local governmental sources had to be collected before the Rosenwald Funds would be given and within five years that the project was initiated. The schools had to operate at least eight months out of the year, the same length as white schools.
As Rosenwald’s fortune grew, so too did the school building project. By 1917, Rosenwald officially established the Rosenwald Fund to manage this growing project. The Rosenwald Fund started phasing out the program in 1932 when the Rosenwald Fund, which had most of its assets in the form of Sears, Roebuck stock, took a huge hit during the Great Depression. By the end of the program, the Fund helped build over 5,300 school buildings in fifteen states, which according to the Fund’s records, could meet the needs of one third of all primary-school-aged African American children in the South.
The Rosenwald Model and the Politics of Jim Crow
Although not new, the Rosenwald model for building schools did help black communities more effectively leverage their local governments than they could have done alone. Before the Fund’s involvement, local government often cited a lack of funds as the reason they could not do more to educate black children. When the Rosenwald Fund coordinated grassroots fundraising efforts among black communities in a highly publicized way and offered to match part of the funds raised, they essentially undermined local government efforts to suppress black education, thereby helping black communities apply new political pressure. By requiring the government to agree to continue maintaining the school once it was established, the Fund also helped expand the bureaucratic apparatus for education, essentially prompting the creation of public school system for the education of black children.
Although this strategy expanded African American children’s access to public education, it also partly undermined black educational autonomy. Jim Crow, after all, was not just about separate facilities; it was about political disenfranchisement, which prevented black communities from maintaining control of their burgeoning public education systems. Where some black communities had established alternative privately-funded schools—albeit usually in grossly inadequate facilities— in order to receive help from the Fund, black communities had to agree to deed these hard-earned resources to their local governments. The price of leveraging the state for many black communities, then, was increased vulnerability to governments that were hostile to their interests.
Although the schools are widely known as Rosenwald Schools, the majority of the funds came directly or indirectly from black southerners. At its conclusion, the total cost of the school building program was $28,408,520. The Rosenwald Fund gave 15.36 percent of this total amount and other white donors contributed 4.27 percent. Black communities gave 16.64 percent and the rest, 63.73 percent, came from public funds. The public funds, however, were collected mostly from black taxpayers, meaning these statistics tend to obscure the extent to which black southerners contributed to these schools. The designation “Rosenwald Schools” has helped create this misconception that the Rosenwald Fund paid the majority of the costs for the school building program and that the program was a strategy developed by the Fund.
How should we remember the Rosenwald Fund?
The Fund was undeniably successful in terms of the sheer number of schoolhouses it helped build, and it played a hand in helping black communities gain access to the educational bureaucracy developing throughout the South in the early twentieth century. The school building program allowed more African American children to attend school for longer school terms, thereby contributing to rapidly increasing literacy rates. In short, the physical infrastructure the Fund supported helped make primary school for black children widely available for the first time.
On the other hand, the Fund undermined black independence, in some cases making black Americans even more vulnerable to Jim Crow, by requiring the transfer of their minimal but hard earned educational assets from private to public control. Telling the story of the Rosenwald Fund school building program without its historical context reifies misleading notions of black racial inferiority by pushing the narrative that the Rosenwald Fund officials were “teaching” black communities self-reliance, thrift, hard work, and the value of education, when in fact these were all long-standing traditions among African Americans in the South. The legacy of the Rosenwald Fund depends on how we balance these two narratives. What is clear is that we cannot tell the story of the Fund without also taking into account the history of the communities the Fund aimed to serve—a lesson that applies to any study of philanthropy.