A Better Life for Their Children

Julius Rosenwald led Sears, Roebuck & Company from 1908 until his death in 1932. He helped turn Sears into the world’s largest retailer, and he became one of the earliest and greatest philanthropists in American history. Booker T. Washington was one of the most prominent African American voices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born into slavery, he became an educator and was the founding principal of Tuskegee Institute. He led the college for more than 30 years. 

Rosenwald and Washington met in 1911. At that time, black public schools in the South were usually in terrible facilities with outdated materials and a tiny fraction of the funding provided for educating white children. Many communities did not even have public schools for African American students. Rosenwald and Washington, forging one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and African Americans, attacked this education challenge with originality and sophistication and created the program that became known as Rosenwald schools. From 1912 to 1932, the Rosenwald schools program built 4,977 schools for African American children across fifteen southern and border states. One final school was added in 1937. Hundreds of thousands of students walked through these doorways. 

The Rosenwald schools program changed America. Between World War I and World War II, the persistent black-white education gap that had plagued the South narrowed significantly. Economists at the Federal Reserve would later conclude that Rosenwald schools were the most significant factor in that achievement. Further, Rosenwald schools would be a meaningful force in helping give rise to the civil rights movement. Many of the leaders and foot soldiers of the movement were educated in Rosenwald schools

Of the original 4,978 Rosenwald schools, about five hundred survive. In what is the first comprehensive photographic account of the program, Andrew Feiler drove more than 25,000 miles and photographed 105 schools in all fifteen of the program states. The work includes interiors and exteriors, schools restored and yet-to-be restored, and portraits of people with compelling connections to these schools. Brief narratives written by Feiler accompany each photograph, telling the stories of Rosenwald schools’ connections to the Trail of Tears, the Great Migration, the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown vs. Board of Education, embezzlement, murder, and more. A book of this work was recently published by the University of Georgia Press. The book’s foreword is by Congressman John Lewis, a Rosenwald school former student. The traveling exhibition of this work will be on view at the Virginia Museum of the History and Culture in Richmond, Virginia, May 25, 2024 - April 20, 2025. 

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Elroy & Sophia Williams
Sophia Williams’ Grandparents, Former Slaves,
Acquired and Donated Land for a Rosenwald School