4,978 Schools that Changed America
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4,978 Schools that Changed America

Andrew Feiler’s “A Better Life for their Children” tells the story of a unique collaboration that brought much-needed educational facilities to underserved communities — especially in the South.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

I first learned about the Julius Rosenwald schools from a video sent to members of Hadassah, and immediately forwarded it to many Jewish and African American friends. The Rosenwald schools were previously unknown to all of us; now, the public can read the complete story about a seemingly impossible idea and its incredible fulfillment.

Andrew Feiler’s “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America” tells the story of the collaborative creation of nearly 5,000 schools in rural areas of the South, attended by African American students. These students walked to run-down, shack-like schools that lacked proper books, supplies and furniture. Rosenwald got to know the residents of the communities in which these children lived and devoted himself to creating “a better life for their children” with buildings and furnishings that would support a safer, healthier and more progressive academic environment. The great effort to establish respectable schools for underserved children dramatically influenced their education, hopes and self-respect — and therefore changed their life opportunities.

Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery, is well known as the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, which he built from the ground up, literally — a university in which students themselves constructed the buildings, from classrooms to dormitories. This endeavor provided quality higher education for poor African Americans.

Beginning in 1912, Washington developed a deep and enduring relationship with Rosenwald, a Jewish philanthropist. Born to immigrant parents, he was a self-made man who rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company, expanding it into the world’s largest retailer. Rosenwald also made substantial donations to Tuskegee Institute and collaborated with Washington on a program that allowed Tuskegee architects to design six model schools for African American students. These school were severely underfunded by state and local governments at the time.

With the success of these first six schools in 1913 and 1914, Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Foundation in 1917. The foundation provided matching funds to communities that would themselves run the schools, and also provided for the construction and maintenance of the facilities, which required the cooperation of white public-school boards. Following Washington’s death, most of these schools continued to be constructed.

Between 1917 and 1937, nearly 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built in 15 states. A bounteous collection of archival photographs illustrates the lasting impact this unique partnership had on the nation.

Andrew Feiler will appear in conversation with Valerie Jackson, in-person and livestreamed, on Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m. EST.

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