Chehaw Rosenwald School

Chehaw School 1917.jpg

This is one of my favorite Rosenwald school images. It shows the Chehaw school, about six miles from Tuskegee and newly completed in 1917, set amidst fields and woods. Looking through some files today, I came across mention of it in an essay by Clinton Calloway, an undersung hero of the Rosenwald school story.

Calloway was a in his junior year at Fisk when he heard a speech by Booker T. Washington that inspired him to want to be a teacher despite the fact that “it offered a very meager salary and no chance to do what I thought bigger things.” Washington’s message “gripped me so tenaciously,” he wrote, that “a short time after receiving my diploma I came to Tuskegee to ‘Let down my bucket.’ In his famous speech at the Atlanta and Cotton States Exhibition in 1895, Washington had told a story about a ship lost at sea that had run out of pure water to drink, reducing the crew to desperate thirst. When they encountered another ship its captain yelled out to the distressed ship to “Cast down your bucket where you are.” They had sailed into the mouth of the Amazon river and the water was pure and drinkable. Washington used the story to encourage people — both black and white — to look on each other, the people amongst whom they lived, as friends and allies.


Washington assigned the young Calloway the responsibility for helping the small farming community of Kowaliga raise money to build a school, which he did, acquiring valuable experience in encouraging community fundraising. While also teaching in the agricultural extension program at Tuskegee, he would travel around to “help give ‘arousements’ as the country people called it,” meetings where men and women would be encouraged to help with the effort to build better schools. Country people around Tuskegee were poor and some felt that if the makeshift schools they had attended in barns and churches had been good enough for them, then they were fine for their children as well. But Calloway had taught every summer during college in small rural schools, spaces he had sometimes shared with chickens, pigs, snakes, and lizards. He had a vision of something better.

When in 1912 Julius Rosenwald gave a grant of $25,000 to Tuskegee it inspired Calloway with an idea he passed on to Washington. Why not use part of that money, just $2,500, to encourage people to donate to schoolhouses. Washington proposed the idea to Rosenwald who liked it. The initial offer of a $300 matching grant was made to six communities close to Tuskegee.

“Every Sunday and three or four days in the week I would invite some friend to go with me into one of these communities to further arouse them from their lethargy so they could qualify for Mr. Rosenwald’s beneficent offer.” Six schoolhouses were built and the enthusiasm they created was such that Rosenwald and Washington decided to commit to building one hundred more. Chehaw, six miles from Tuskegee, was one of these. It was also one of the first of the schools to have, as Calloway put it, “the honor of entertaining Mr. Rosenwald.” During one of his visits to Tuskegee, Rosenwald was invited to stop at Chehaw.

“Mr. Rosenwald, a big-hearted lover of humanity, gladly consented and made the journey with me in the School’s Ford from Tuskegee to Chehaw. The people had cleared away all rubbish, their school house was clean and brilliantly lighted. the men, women and children gaily dressed and in a joyful mood. They had made huge bonfires to light our way to the school. We went up the walk with fire burning our pathway on each side and lusty yells of “Hurrah for Mr. Roosevelt.” (Some had confused Mr. Rosenwald with Col. Roosevelt.) They escorted us to the platform — Mr. Rosenwald with a beaming face and twinkling eyes as the people showed by group yells and songs their appreciation of the friendly interest manifested by Mr. Rosenwald. The chairman of the trustee board expressed in a very crude but straight forward way the gratitude of the community for interest in helping them to get away from the awful condition of a short while ago.”

What an image! Rosewald driven to the school over rutted country roads in a Ford and arriving to bonfires and cheers for the former president with the similar name, a man who like Rosenwald served on the board of Tuskegee.

And what a contribution Clinton Calloway made, understanding the importance of getting the public school systems to buy into the school-building program. He knew the country people served by the schools didn’t didn’t want to feel that building them “was just another movement of ‘White Folks’ to turn over the management of one more thing in their communities which the Negroes had been managing.” He prided himself on hiring excellent “young Negro men” as Rosenwald school agents..

“No longer is the Negro Youth willing to sit all day on backless benches,” Calloway wrote, “gazing at wooden shutters, looking down through the cracks at crawling reptiles. He demands better schools, efficient teachers and laughs at ‘What is good enough for us is good enough for our children.’”