Stephanie Deutsch’s new book, You Need a Schoolhouse, is unconventionally and unintentionally controversial. Mind you, there is no revelation about some sly, hidden political agenda practiced by powerful men. Nor is there any disclosure of some long hidden corruption. No, the problem with this beautifully written book is that it makes heroes of two men whom historians more often cast as suspect, even villainous.
To this day, most Americans are taught that Booker T. Washington was a prominent black man, but a pawn of white elites. The black educator encouraged black people—recently freed from slavery—to cooperate with segregationist white America. He is widely disparaged as advocating black appeasement of white, racist southerners during the Reconstruction era. Washington’s posture is often contrasted with the outspoken, even confrontational, approach of another educator, W. E. B. DuBois, whose reputation history celebrates for the organization he helped to found, the NAACP.
Few Americans are taught much about Julius Rosenwald. Some may know that his success in business made him one of the richest men in the country. At the turn of the 20th century, his wealth put him in the company of monopolists and so-called “robber barons,” men like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. As a grace note, students of history are sometimes taught that Rosenwald, the co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, who donated tens of millions of dollars of his own fortune to philanthropic causes.
Now comes Deutsch’s book, which gives life to the story of the unlikely, in fact amazing, collaboration between the two men. The former slave and the Jewish businessman built more than 5,300 one-room schoolhouses across America’s segregated South—stretching from Maryland to Florida to Texas—in the early 1900s. During that time, the Rosenwald schools educated one-third of the South’s black children.
In Deutsch’s hands, Rosenwald and Washington are treated with respect and affection. She raises them up as role models for intelligent, successful philanthropy. On the basis of her detailed research into their lives, she vividly illustrates how philanthropy with far-reaching social, economic, and political impact can be born when need, vision, and common sense are wed.
Earlier generations were more aware of the magnitude of their achievement. Deutsch quotes an article written by Robert Moton for the Associated Negro Press: “It was a fortunate day for black people when the two men met and trusted each other.” Moton was a friend of Washington, and worked with him at Tuskegee. His view reflects that of his contemporaries, which saw these two men as giants of history. And indeed they were. Their achievement ranks among the most significant in the history of American philanthropy.
Deutsch delves into this inspiring story, a story of two men who stood apart from the rhetoric, the posturing, and the racial name-calling to help people and make a difference in millions of lives. These men bucked the tide of history to create a new racial reality.
It was never easy. They had to overcome the entrenched racism that dominated in the states of the old Confederacy following Reconstruction. They faced the disenfranchisement, segregation, and institutionalized discrimination of Jim Crow. Around the same time the schools were being constructed, a cycle of church burnings and lynching reached its peak.
Though Rosenwald dealt with anti-Semitism in his own life, it is unclear whether this motivated his strong support for the cause of African Americans in the South. It is true that many Jewish immigrants empathized with black southerners because of the similarities they saw between the prejudice against blacks in the United States and the anti-Semitism that festered in Europe and Russia at the turn of the century. One pointed backward, to slavery; the other pointed forward, to more pogroms and, ultimately, the Holocaust.
It was quite clear, however, that Rosenwald was motivated to work with Washington by his belief in the value of education, combined with hard work and self-reliance, as the foundation for personal success. These values were instilled in him as a young boy by his immigrant parents. That worldview would later be called the American Dream, the ethos that all citizens, regardless of their background, can rise in America if they work hard enough.
And Washington, despite being born in slavery, shared Rosenwald’s optimistic vision about the transformative power of education. It might sound hokey, but the two men felt in equal measure that education was the key for successful people of any color. It allowed them to be self-reliant and to engage in the American ideal that the Declaration of Independence describes as the “pursuit of happiness.”
Despite the larger political arguments over the prevalence of white racial violence against blacks and the lack of legal or political equality for former slaves, Rosenwald and Washington boiled the racial disparity down to the educational differential between black and white. That led them to a brilliant but simple agreement: If access to education is key to equality, they would build schools.
They brought in other donors to support their vision. And they recruited teachers to their schools. To thousands of otherwise dispossessed black people, they championed the value of education as the way to succeed, convincing young and old alike to become the first in their families to receive some formal education.
Deutsch consistently reminds the reader that the schoolhouses themselves—almost always the best-designed and built structures in their communities (many subsequent white schools even copied their designs)—enabled broad social and economic community improvement for black Americans of that time, and for generations afterward.
Unfortunately, in 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation had to declare the Rosenwald schools among the most endangered historic sites in the country. It is not difficult to see why preservationists are trying to save them. As we are reminded in the book’s final chapter, “One graduate of the ‘Scrabble School’ in Virginia described her sentiment for (that institution) as a ‘home’ feeling. Home—a place where one is loved, valued, and accepted.”
But this is not a book about architecture or buildings. “Black students often had to walk several miles to their schools,” writes Deutsch, “sometimes passed on the road by school buses carrying their white neighbors to their better-equipped schools, but when the black students arrived, Rosenwald schools were a haven from prejudice. Their black teachers and principals were loving and supportive. Many children knew their parents and neighbors had raised money and in some cases even done the physical work of building the schools.”
If the importance of the Rosenwald schools is not in the buildings, neither was it only in educating a single generation of black people. There was a more long-term consequence of their efforts. As Rosenwald Fund president Edwin Embree observed: “The most notable effect of the school-building program was in the stimulus it gave to public support of Negro education.”
Today’s education reformers would do well to re-read those lines for perspective. No matter how frustrating today’s politicians, teachers unions, and the education bureaucrats can be, they pale in comparison to the forces that were aligned against Washington and Rosenwald. Their struggle to overcome that level of opposition is an inspiration for the ages.
Every February, black history month, schoolchildren learn about modern civil rights heroes from Thurgood Marshall to Martin Luther King Jr. and even Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player. This book reminds us of the importance of Washington and Rosenwald, a marriage of money and mission that resulted in a free education for generations of black people. It set the nation on the course to the 1954 Brown decision, and bettered the lives of millions of Americans.
Biographers and historians often cannot help becoming personally invested in the subjects of their works. I experienced this firsthand when I wrote a biography of Thurgood Marshall in the late 1990s. I believed then, as I believe now, that our collective memory of the civil rights movement, the history we teach in school textbooks, did not fully recognize the contribution of Marshall and his tremendous legal acumen in achieving equal rights for African Americans.
A similar measure of personal investment imbues the pages of You Need a Schoolhouse. Writing with sympathy and affection for Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, Stephanie Deutsch has crafted a compelling story, one that will inspire today’s philanthropists who seek to emulate a partnership so seemingly improbable, and so impossibly successful.