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What We Can Learn from the Rosenwald Schools

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Teachers or agents of the Rosenwald Rural Schools in 1916. Robert Russa Morton, principal of the Tuskegee Institute, is seated at center. (Library of Congress) A century ago, philanthropy plus voluntarism made major improvements in African Americans’ education.

The addition of Juneteenth to our country’s annual celebrations is not just a long-overdue recognition of the end of slavery but also an opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary efforts of black Americans to transform their lives in the face of societal barriers. The creation of Rosenwald Schools was a testament to such efforts. Through the Great Depression, 90 percent of black Americans lived in the Jim Crow South, and it was there that Julius Rosenwald used a substantial share of his wealth to partner with black communities to build the schools those communities were determined to have.

Rosenwald was one of a number of successful German Jewish immigrants who saw racial inequality as a great stain on American society, not unlike the anti-Semitism that had driven their forebears to leave Europe. Many of these men took counsel from Booker T. Washington and invested in black institutions and organizations. Tuskegee Institute (now University) and Howard and Fisk Universities were prominent recipients of their generosity, and so, too, were the NAACP and Urban League. For Julius Rosenwald the education of black children in decent, modern schoolhouses was a primary focus.

The first Rosenwald school began construction in 1913, and by 1932, 4,977 had been built. They are estimated to have served 36 percent of rural black children by the end of segregation. According to a 2011 study by Dan Aaronson and Bhashkar Muzamder, analysts with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Rosenwald programs account for at least 30 percent of the sizable educational gains of African-American children during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. In the longer run, exposure to the schools raised the wages of African Americans who remained in the South relative to Southern whites by about 35 percent. Rosenwald schools were public schools, operated by white school boards, but they were better built and equipped for learning than

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