“The National Trust has a long history working to save Rosenwald Schools, including a place on the 2002 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List.
“Recently, Antiques and the Arts conducted a Q&A with Brent Leggs, the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Leggs explains the importance of Rosenwald Schools, saying “Arguably, the Rosenwald Schools story is equal to Brown vs Board of Education. It’s one of the most important educational stories of Twentieth Century America. It’s also important in today’s time, telling how a multiracial community, including Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald—men from different backgrounds—came together as social justice champions in their fight against the inequitable and poor educational facilities that Black kids and families had to endure across the South.”
“Leggs also said, ‘The National Trust and National Parks Conservation Association have collaborated on the newly created Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park Campaign with the goal of establishing a multi-site park in the National Park System telling the story of Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools. This would be the first of more than 420 National Park Service units to commemorate the life and contributions of a Jewish American.” (SavingPlaces.org)
“In the early 1900s, a first-generation Jewish American from a German immigrant family would become one of the most successful business magnates in all of America. But unlike many other magnates of the Gilded Age, Julius Rosenwald did not sit on his hands and eat his wealth away. He instead helped build a vast landscape of school buildings for the Black community across the South in what would be one of the most ambitious educational initiatives of the Twentieth Century. Recognition is on its way as Brent Leggs, the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust For Historic Preservation, and his team move forward legislation that will preserve a number of Rosenwald Schools in the National Park System. We spoke with Leggs to learn more about the initiative and the impact Rosenwald has left across the Southern United States.
“Let’s start from the top: who was Julius Rosenwald and what is a Rosenwald School?
Julius Rosenwald was a first-generation born immigrant to the United States who made a fortune in retail with Sears, Roebuck & Co. His family had fled persecution in Germany, so his own experience with bigotry and hatred made him empathetic to the plight of African Americans. Between 1917 and 1932, the Rosenwald School Fund invested $4.3 million and, along with $4.7 million contributed by the Black community, more than 5,300 architecturally advanced school buildings were created for Black children in the South across 15 states. They were built for educational purposes and community use, and you can imagine what it meant for the Black community to have state-of-the-art schools that were the centerpiece of community pride. Rosenwald was a social innovator, a champion of human rights and a justice-driven philanthropist.
“Where did his drive come from? Who helped him along?
Rosenwald felt a social and personal responsibility to use his power, influence and privilege to uplift the Black community in the South. He was impressed by educator Booker T. Washington and moved into action and joined the board of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in 1912. These two men shared a belief in self-help and self-reliance and the power of architecture as racial justice to envision a radical revolution in American education.
“Why is the Rosenwald Schools story important?
Arguably, the Rosenwald Schools story is equal to Brown vs Board of Education. It’s one of the most important educational stories of Twentieth Century America. It’s also important in today’s time, telling how a multiracial community, including Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald – men from different backgrounds – came together as social justice champions in their fight against the inequitable and poor educational facilities that Black kids and families had to endure across the South. By 1928, one-third of the South’s rural Black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald Schools.” (Smith, 10/6/20)