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Fall 2009

Forgotten Schools Remembered

currie_school.jpgIt is Julius Rosenwald who gets most of the credit. And by all accounts, when it comes to the more than 5,000 schools built in the south for African American children during segregation, he deserves much of it. Rosenwald, a wealthy Chicago philanthropist and part owner of Sears, Roebuck & Company, didn't hesitate when his friend Tuskegee University president Booker T. Washington asked him to help finance a new, rural school-building program that he hoped would counter the inadequate education that African American children were receiving under Jim Crow laws. Rosenwald initially allowed Washington to use some of the money he had donated to Tuskegee, later giving $4 million in additional seed money. By 1928, one in every five rural schools for African American students in the South was a "Rosenwald school," as they came to be known.

But the way Claudia Stack, Ed.M.'92, sees it, the poor African American families who dipped into their own pockets to help pay for the schools should also be getting credit -- certainly more than they have in the past.

"Nothing would have happened without the community contribution," says Stack, who recently helped high school students near her home in the southeastern part of North Carolina create a short film about the schools. She is also finishing a full-length documentary of her own. "If there's anything I would change about the coverage of the schools, it is that the emphasis is usually on the philanthropy. The philanthropy is key, but it was more of an organizing point." (In addition to the seed money, the Rosenwald Fund also provided architectural plans for the buildings, which ranged from simple one-room wooden schoolhouses to two-story brick buildings.)

Stack says African American families contributed a staggering $4.7 million toward the schools, which were spread across 15 states, from Maryland to Texas.

"Many of the people were the children and grandchildren of slaves. They perhaps earned 50 cents a day," she says. In Canetuck, N.C., for example, which is the focus of the student film, Seeing It in Color, families raised $1,200 for their two-teacher school.

"In the early 1920s, for the families to contribute that amount is amazing," Stack says. "The drive they had to obtain an education for their children and grandchildren was remarkable." Rosenwald funds contributed $800 toward the school, and public financing -- a third, required component of the funding that was intended to make white school boards take more responsibility for the education of African Americans -- kicked in $674.

Hanging on to History

By 1932, the year that Julius Rosenwald died, construction grants had ended for new schools (except for one school built five years later in Warm Springs, Ga., at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt). Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that read, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," many of the schools closed or were repurposed by churches and civic groups. Over time, many abandoned schools were torn down or left to rot. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of original Rosenwald schools are still standing.

"The history has become just a province of alumni," says Stack. She became interested while she was working on a project at UNC-Wilmington to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown.

"I started to wonder about the abandoned school buildings that I drove by every day. What was it really like in 1954 around here?" she says. "I knew they were school buildings, but not much more than that. I started asking questions and I visited one. This one had a narrative plaque inside, which introduced me to the story."

At the time, Stack was codirector of the university's freshman learning program and leading two film classes. She decided to get her students involved in researching and documenting local history, including the schools. Eventually, Stack also involved students from nearby Pender Early College High School. For a semester, these high school students learned how to make a film. But more importantly, Stack says, they met and interviewed surviving Rosenwald alumni.

"There was a dual enrichment that happened when the generations met," Stack says. "Locally, people don't talk much about the segregation era. That history is in danger of being lost. Today's younger students don't have much awareness of what went on here. As they learned, it shocked them and made them understand why the older folks they met were so appreciative of their education. It gave them a different perspective on what they have."

As the process of completing the film went on, students started making connections. "One day a student said, 'Why do we have to eat in the garage?' I told her to take it a step further: What does that say to you? And what do you think it meant when black students were given secondhand books and had to walk miles to substandard schools? It was a teachable moment, for sure," Stack says.

Recently the 2009 Cine Noir Festival of Black Film screened the students' film, which can be viewed in part on YouTube. Stack hopes to finish her longer documentary, Under the Kudzu, by the end of the year. Not only will it highlight Rosenwald schools more broadly, but it will also dispel myths about African Americans and how they valued education.

"Today, in light of the history of the Rosenwald school movement, nothing could be further from the truth that lower-income African Americans have never been interested in education or their children's learning," she says. "This line that we've been fed is really questionable, especially based on the history of these schools. We just need to reconnect with this rich tradition."

photo by Claudia Stack