In 2002, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Rosenwald schools to its list of most endangered historic sites in America, many people were unfamiliar with the story of these iconic structures and no one knew for sure how many were still standing. There had been over five thousand of them when Julius Rosenwald died in 1932, schoolhouses and school-related buildings funded in part through the program that he and Booker T. Washington had created in 1914. Some were isolated small white clapboard buildings on kudzu-lined country roads, others were larger, grander, and located in towns and even, a few, in cities. In 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled segregation in education unconstitutional the schools, built by African American communities for black children with the aid of funding from Rosenwald, became obsolete. As school districts moved (in some places slowly and in the face of considerable opposition) to consolidate their schools they rarely chose to place integrated classes in formerly black schools. Many Rosenwald schools, once the pride of their communities, vanished – fell apart or were demolished without fanfare or notice.
Others, though, have come back to life. In placing the schools on the Most Endangered Historic Sites list, the National Trust was reacting to pressure from former students and community groups anxious to keep alive the piece of history embodied by the schools. From the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. to rural North Carolina, to the deep South and the rolling hills of East Texas alumni and concerned citizens are raising money and applying for grants to help them reclaim their Rosenwald school buildings and preserve the story they tell.
It is a story that weaves together the careers of two fascinating and significant figures, Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. The issues the two men raised one hundred years ago — issues of race and opportunity, education and the importance of community — are with us still. And their contributions to our national conversation about them continue to reverberate.
In June, 2015 over 300 scholars, preservationists and alumni gathered in Durham, North Carolina for Sharing the Past, Shaping the Future, the second Rosenwald schools conference sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The first, One Hundred Years of Pride, Progress & Preservation, was held in 2012 on the campus of Tuskegee University. Both gatherings celebrated the heritage of Rosenwald schools and sought to encourage those working to reclaim them. Each conference featured workshops on the multiple issues involved in restoring a Rosenwald school, field trips, stimulating scholarly presentations, movie screenings, and lots and of talk. Just as it was one hundred years ago, the Rosenwald school story today is all about community.