Washington DC’s very elegant Cosmos Club was perhaps an odd venue for kicking off a campaign to create a National Park Service site celebrating the accomplishments of a son of Jewish immigrants who partnered with former slaves and sharecroppers to build schools for their children. But this is a city full of contradictions and so there it was — gold chaldeliers, tasty hors d’oeuvres, Rosenwald school alumni, National Trust for HIstoric Preservation staff, fundraisers, volunteers and a slide show about Julius Rosenwald’s life and accomplishments.
Two years ago I met Dorothy Canter. She had just seen Aviva Kempner’s documentary film, “Rosenwald” and had been blown away by it. She could not believe that she, a Jew, did not know the story of Julius Rosenwald’s life and philanthropy. As a longtime volunteer with the National Parks and Conservation Association, and a person knowledgeable in the ways of Washington, she set to work. I was one of her first recruits to the effort which now includes fundraisers, people with congressional connections, staff of NPCA, and several longtime employees of the National Park Service. One of these is the Honorable Robert Stanton who ended his forty year tenure at the NPS as its director.
Mr. Stanton’s remarks last night were passionate and moving — about the tragic turn of events at the end of the Civil War that took the country from passage of the 13th and 14th amendments assuring full rights and equal protection to all citizens to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the concept of “separate but equal.” It was not until 1954 and another Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that it was determined that separate never could be equal in education (or, a few years later with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in any other area).
But in the time between those two court decisions, the void in education for African American children in the South was at least partly filled by the partnership between local communities and the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Between 1913 and 1932 the Fund gave $4,364,869 to build over 5,000 schoolhouses, shop buildings and teachers’ homes in fifteen southern states. A lot of money — but not quite as much as the $4,725,891 given by the parents, grandparents and neighbors of the rural black children those schools were built to serve.
What a remarkable story. As Mr. Stanton and other speakers (including me) said last night, this legacy is extraordinarily worthy of national recognition.
For more information visit https://www.rosenwaldpark.org