Rosenwald Schools

  • Education
  • 1912

For his fiftieth birthday in 1912, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, donated $650,000 to a group of charities. One of the gifts was $25,000 to Booker T. Washington to help expand the school Washington led, the Tuskegee Institute. After completing his promised expansion, Washington reported to Rosenwald that $2,100 remained, and he proposed to the donor that this balance be used to build six schools for African Americans in the rural area surrounding the institute. He carefully documented progress on the schools with photos and letters from local residents. Once these were up and running, the impressed Rosenwald allocated another $30,000 for Tuskegee to construct 100 more schools throughout Alabama.

Rosenwald was a stickler for matched local contributions from the families who would benefit from the schools, and then for proof that each academy was well staffed and operating effectively. Washington was equally punctilious in demonstrating the schools’ concrete results. As Rosenwald realized how bereft of educational options most black families in the South were, and how effective his spartan schools were in serving communities that had previously been neglected, he caught the fever.

Over less than 20 years, the Rosenwald school-building program erected 4,977 rural schools and 380 companion buildings in almost every Southern locale with a substantial black population, at a total cost of $28.4 million. A major portion of the money Julius Rosenwald gave away during his lifetime (approaching $2 billion in current dollars) went into his self-organized school-building effort. In the process he put a deep constructive imprint on American society: At the time of his death in 1932, the schools Rosenwald built were educating fully 35 percent of all black students in the American South, and 27 percent of black American children as a whole.