The Legacy of Rosenwald Schools
A story of persistence and dedication in Black education
Blackie might have been the first dog to be expelled from school. Maxine Nowlin’s pup was a fixture curled up near the pot-bellied stove that heated a two-room schoolhouse in Courtland, Va., as a teacher taught Black students.
Until someone, probably a teacher, stepped on the dog one day. It growled, bared its teeth and earned permanent canine detention. “Blackie could not go to school with us anymore,” Nowlin says with a laugh decades later. “But Blackie was a part of the educational process.”
But until she attended a conference about 10 years ago, Nowlin did not realize that her classmates and Blackie were learning in a Rosenwald school, the gateway to Black education in the South and an eventual entry on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I had no earthly clue that it was a Rosenwald school,” says Nowlin, a member of Courtland Town Council who runs an after-school program at the school, now a community center. “This is a fascinating part of history.”
A STEP FORWARD
The Courtland School, which cost $4,000, with the African American community contributing $1,000, was one of 5,300 Rosenwald schools built between 1917 and 1932.
Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, supplied the inspiration and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and a member of Tuskegee’s board of trustees, supplied the financing, which local citizens and governing bodies had to match.
Rosenwald saw it “as an incentive for Southern states to meet their responsibility to provide decent public schools for Black children,” according to Mary Hoffschwelle, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and expert on the schools declared endangered in 2002 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Bureaus of freed slaves and churches brought education to many communities after the Civil War. But Rosenwald schools were more sweeping in their scope — Hoffschwelle estimates they housed one-third of the South’s rural Black schoolchildren and teachers by 1928.
“I don’t think people understand that education for emancipated Black people’s education was one of their top priorities. They just wanted to be educated and they wanted their children educated,” says Sonja Ingram, field services manager for Preservation Virginia, a Richmond-based nonprofit. “The Rosenwald fund was really a shot in the arm to help with this.”
Preservation Virginia has been painstakingly cataloguing Rosenwald schools in the state, working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to identify where the schools were and what happened to them. Rosenwald schools have been located in 86 of Virginia’s 95 counties and four independent cities.
The organization has developed an interactive map, subject to refinement, of the 382 school buildings in Virginia attributable to the Rosenwald project. Most have been demolished or fallen apart. Eighty-three of the 126 still intact are in use, such as the Courtland building; the others are vacant, according to Preservation Virginia. In Maryland, 53 Rosenwald schools remain, Preservation Maryland says.
That should give impetus to preserving the remaining structures. Ingram notes that Caswell County, N.C., on the Virginia border, once had six Rosenwald schools.
“Not a single one is standing. You can go there and see the foundation. So, it’s not that somebody tore it down to build another house. They just don’t exist,” Ingram says. “I always wondered about that because there’s so much that you can take from these schools and learn from.”
The schools were very specific in their design. The program required a minimum of 2 acres for a campus Hoffschwelle says, with room for a shop for boys and a home for teachers. They incorporated modern lighting and ventilation, and were designed to be constructed easily, almost a chain restaurant style but with a much greater purpose.
Additionally, one of the hallmarks of a Rosenwald school was classification by the number of teachers, not rooms. In Virginia, about half of the buildings were two-teacher schools, Preservation Virginia found. That might translate into one teacher for grades 1 through 3 and another for grades 4 to 7.
While it sounds like a mishmash, Maurice Darden, Nowlin’s older brother, says it worked well at the Courtland school he attended.
“The beauty of the Rosenwald school back in those times is suppose you were in the fourth grade but you were pretty smart. You could actually learn every lesson from the person who was assigned to the seventh grade,” he says.
“Suppose you were in the seventh grade and you had missed some stuff in the fourth and fifth grades — the mother got sick or maybe you had to work on the farm. You had an instant review because by sitting there and basically everybody sitting beside in the same room, it was always a review process.”
Equally important, and something that today’s schoolkids would blanch at — grooming and inspection. Students had to show their fingernails, their hair and their ears. If you didn’t pass muster, you were reported to the whole class.
“We got the first-class nurturing from the teachers in the community and that’s the thing that we don’t have now,” Darden says. “We don’t have the nurturing that we used to have. We couldn’t afford to fail.”
Preservation Virginia has helped to connect many of the Rosenwald school groups that were working independently. In response, more and more museums and exhibits are coming into play.
Annie Trent has been active in building the Carver-Price Legacy Museum in Appomattox, originally a three-teacher school that hosted many education refugees in the early 1960s when nearby Prince Edward shut down its system rather than integrate.
“The school sat empty a lot,” Trent says. “We’ve come a long way but we’re still working on it.”
On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the Cape Charles Rosenwald School Restoration Initiative has purchased a circa-1928 elementary school with the intention of rehabbing it. In Cumberland County, Va., residents are trying to fend off a mega-landfill that would be located near the site of a Rosenwald school.
By now, it’s familiar knowledge to Nowlin. She learned about her school’s history late in life; now she is passing it on to the next generation.
“The only way they’re going to know about our legacy, our history, is that we have to tell them,” she says. “If you don’t know about where you came from, how would you know where you’re going?”