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Claudia Stack

Schools Built by African Americans Changed the South


The Canetuck Rosenwald School (built 1922) in Pender County, NC

Photo by Claudia Stack

Even before it was legal, but especially after 1865, African Americans sacrificed to obtain education and build schools. John Alvord, Superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau, observed in July, 1866 that: “The surprising efforts of our colored population to obtain education...are growing to a habit." (Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935, p. 15) Their participation in schooling exploded after the Civil War. African Americans of all ages sought literacy and built schools, even before securing the basic necessities of life. As James D. Anderson notes in his groundbreaking work The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935:

Despite what seemed like overwhelming opposition to their educational campaigns, the masses of Afro-Americans persisted in becoming literate. Their 95 percent illiteracy rate in 1860 had dropped to 70 percent in 1880 and would drop to 30 percent by 1910.” - The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 p. 31

This unrivaled gain in literacy over just five decades was a result of an intense campaign of basic literacy classes for adults and school building for children. Many adults wanted to learn to read, and determined African American parents raised money to obtain the schools for their children that had been denied to them.

Nor did their drive and sacrifice for education stop at the primary school level. In a 2007 article in The Journal of Negro Education, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future,” it is noted that “In the 25 years after the Civil War, approximately 100 institutions of higher learning were created to educate freed African Americans, primarily in the southern United States.” These historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) continue to play an important role in our nation as incubators of innovation and professional success.

While the Freedman’s Bureau and northern philanthropists provided seed money and logistical support for some schools, the incredible increase in literacy was largely the result of African American sacrifice for education. The system of double taxation, first described by Anderson, was the model for most African American school construction. It means that southern African American families paid their taxes, then had to raise additional funds to build schools for their children.

In the five decades that followed the Civil War, formerly enslaved people in southeastern North Carolina established many schools without assistance from government or outside groups. For example, where I live in Pender County, NC, the tiny Love Grove school was founded by the community during Reconstruction. It was later operated as a public school until 1958. In the town of Burgaw, the C.F. Pope school was established in 1891 as a school for Baptist ministers, but changed its mission to meet a growing demand for general education. It was eventually taken over by the public school system in 1939.

There were countless less formal educational efforts as well. Many people acquired basic literacy in “Sunday schools” held in newly established African American churches, or from informal classes that took place in houses or barns. Despite these efforts, facilities for African American students lagged far behind those for white students. In the 1920s, large brick schools were erected to consolidate smaller schools for European American students. Their discarded wooden buildings were sometimes repurposed as schools for African American children, but the situation was still much the same as it had been in 1914, when Nathan C. Newbold, North Carolina’s first State Agent for Negro Schools, remarked: “The average Negro school house is really a disgrace to an independent civilized society.”

Had it not been for the philanthropic vision of Julius Rosenwald, the organizing genius of Booker T. Washington, and countless families who raised money, African American students in the South would have fallen even further behind their European American counterparts in the first half of the 20th century. Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, applied his business acumen to philanthropy. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, influenced Rosenwald to join the board of Tuskegee. In 1912, Rosenwald donated $25,000, and Washington used part of that donation to assist six communities near Tuskegee in building primary schools. This effort was so successful that the program was expanded and they began providing architectural plans. The African American architect and Wilmington native Robert R. Taylor, a professor at Tuskegee, helped to design the first Rosenwald school plans. They were published in the 1915 booklet “The Negro Rural School and its Relation to the Community.”

In 1917 Rosenwald created the Julius Rosenwald Fund to administer his philanthropic efforts. By the time the Fund ended its grants for school construction in 1932 it had assisted in the construction of 4,977 schools, 163 shops, and 217 boarding houses for teachers across the South. North Carolina communities raised funds to build 813 Rosenwald schools, more than any other state.

According to the Rosenwald Fund archive at Fisk University, communities in three of the counties near me in southeastern NC --New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties-- constructed 39 buildings on 34 school campuses, with the majority built in the 1920s. Although income for rural African American families averaged less than one dollar per day, and even that pittance was unreliable for sharecropping families, African Americans families in these three counties donated $27,375 toward Rosenwald school construction.

Typically, the African American community raised at least 20% of the cost of a school, and often also donated materials and labor. The Rosenwald Fund usually matched their contribution up to about 20%, but would not release funds until the local school board agreed to complete the building and incorporate the school into the public system. Local European Americans donated as well, although their contributions did not close the enormous resource gap between the two school systems. Dr. Tom Hanchett recounts how the schools were built in an article on his website "Saving the South's Rosenwald Schools."

“They wanted the students to be well-rounded...that’s why they stressed plays and reciting poems” retired educator William Jordan recalled about his teachers at Pender County Training School (PCTS) in the documentary “Under the Kudzu” (Stack Stories, 2012). Jordan attended PCTS from 1948-1952. Prior to attending high school at the complex of buildings that made up PCTS in Rocky Point, he attended the one-room Bowden Rosenwald school approximately six miles to the north. Although the two schools differed greatly in appearance, as Rosenwald schools they shared a common origin and certain architectural hallmarks. Buildings at both schools featured the large banks of windows that maximized natural light in the era before rural electrification.

African American residents of Brunswick County, NC raised $2,000 for a four-room building that was completed in 1922 as the Brunswick County Training School (BCTS). The “training school” designation indicated a school that included high school grades, which at that time qualified its students to be teachers. The first BCTS building burned down just months after construction, and $4,500 of insurance money was lost in a bank failure in 1923. Undeterred, African Americans then raised $5,050 toward a new six-room BCTS building in Southport that was completed in 1924 (pictured).

Nine wooden Rosenwald schools were built in New Hanover County, NC, but the only Rosenwald-related school still standing in that county is the stately brick building on 10th street in Wilmington, NC. It is the former Williston Industrial school (later Williston High School, and currently in use by Gregory Elementary). Williston originated in 1866 and occupied various buildings over the years. In the late 1920s the Rosenwald Fund began to emphasize larger, urban schools. The Fund contributed $7,600 towards the construction of the 1931, 20-classroom building and attached shop that was the new home of Williston Industrial School. In 1936 Williston was completely destroyed by fire, but it was reconstructed according to the same plans.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Rosenwald schools. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "By 1928, one-third of the South’s rural black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald Schools." Families not only contributed to their construction and maintenance, but also boarded teachers in their homes and purchased books and equipment. Despite being chronically underfunded, many Rosenwald schools developed a reputation for academic rigor. Although openly advocating for equality would have cost them their jobs, teachers in Rosenwald schools quietly equipped their students with fortitude, critical reading, and speaking skills. These were qualities that would be on display to the world during the Civil Rights era.

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