The rural school building program began in 1912 as a collaboration between, the head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Rosenwald, one of the institute’s trustees and the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Washington held that impoverished African Americans could improve economic and social conditions by educating themselves—but at the time, public school facilities for blacks in the rural South were inadequate at best and nonexistent at worst. By providing matching funds to stimulate the construction of safe, sanitary school buildings in rural areas, Washington hoped to improve the state of public education for African Americans and, by extension, African American society as a whole. Rosenwald was a self-made millionaire and whose philanthropic beliefs aligned with Washington’s philosophy of self-reliance. Washington convinced him to allocate part of a larger donation to the Tuskegee Institute toward helping to fund the construction of six schools in rural Alabama. After the success of this initial test, Rosenwald agreed to contribute private funds to build more school buildings.
Washington and Rosenwald structured the program to engage the communities it benefited: rather than financing the entire construction project, Rosenwald provided partial funds—no more than half the total cost of the project—that had to be matched by the community and by a county school board appropriation. Grants were paid only after matching funds had been secured and construction had been approved. Community members could match the funding in money or in kind, by deeding over land for the project or contributing labor or materials.
The types of buildings that could be constructed with the help of a Rosenwald incentive grant included schools, teacher housing, and shop buildings (for vocational instruction). These structures had to meet an established set of modern safety and sanitation standards and were to follow one of several pre-established architectural plans. The plans varied based on the size of the community being served: most of the schools built in the early stages of the program were small one- or two-teacher schools, but plans were later standardized for structures that could support up to eleven teachers. The blueprints incorporated the latest thinking in school design: the wood-frame or brick structures were modest but high-functioning, typically featuring bands of large east- or west-facing windows to provide ample light in regions without access to electricity. The plans were initially developed in 1915 by architecture professors at the Tuskegee Institute; by 1920, the Rosenwald Fund published a series of designs by the program director, Samuel L. Smith, under the title Community School Plans. The book also contained recommendations for nearly every aspect of a school’s physical development, including location, construction materials, blackboard and desk placement, paint colors, and even the types of plants that should beautify school grounds. The principles set forth for Rosenwald schools influenced school architects throughout the United States, in communities that were Black and white, rural and urban.
The program, originally based in the extension department of the Tuskegee Institute, grew rapidly in its first five years. By 1917, the demand for grants had outstripped the capacity of the college to manage the far-flung venture—now serving fifteen southern states—so Rosenwald set up his own philanthropic foundation, the Julius Rosenwald Fund, to run the program. (Washington had died two years earlier, in 1915.) In 1920 he moved the operation to Nashville, Tennessee. There, employees of the program identified willing school officials, processed applications, and supervised school construction. Another philanthropic organization, John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board, paid for agents at the state level to secure commitments from county school officials and submit to Nashville annual wish lists of the numbers and types of schools desired. By 1928, one of every five schools for blacks in the South was a Rosenwald school.
Edwin Rogers Embree replaced an elderly, ailing Rosenwald as president of the Rosenwald Fund in 1928. At this time the fund was reorganized and shifted its focus to public health initiatives, leadership programs, and higher education. Embree discontinued the Rosenwald rural school building program in 1932, the year of Rosenwald’s death. After 1954, when the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education forbade racial segregation in public education, many counties closed their Rosenwald schools in the 1960s and 1970s as they began to integrate Black and white students. Newer Rosenwald-assisted buildings—by then more than twenty years old—were sometimes incorporated into county desegregation plans or repurposed.
Rosenwald Schools in Virginia
The rural school building program began funding projects in Virginia in 1917. Between 1917 and 1932, Rosenwald funds helped build 382 schools and support buildings in seventy-nine Virginia counties. The majority of these buildings conformed to the smaller, one- or two-teacher designs, though schools big enough to accommodate ten and eleven teachers were built in Henrico and Prince Edward counties, respectively. The rural school building program’s involvement in Virginia reached its peak between 1923 and 1924, when forty-five Rosenwald-assisted schools were constructed.
The number of Rosenwald schools that exist in Virginia today is not known. Some have been renovated and restored to community use, such as Rappahannock County‘s Scrabble School, which reopened in May 2009 as a senior center. In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed all Rosenwald schools in the United States on its list of most endangered historic buildings.