A look back: the legacy of Julius Rosenwald

Rosenwald School

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpressonline.com

There’s an old saying that goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” implying that better economic conditions should yield benefits for everyone, whether you sail a yacht or paddle a canoe. In this era of concentrated wealth, where the top one-percent of U.S. households control about 35-percent of our nation’s wealth, a man like Julius Rosenwald would stick out like a sore thumb, because he actually believed that “rising tide” stuff, and the man put his money behind his convictions.
Rosenwald story Julius Rosenwald

“Do you know that one-tenth of our population is black?” Rosenwald asked a reporter in a 1929 interview. “Well, if we promote better citizenship among that proportion of our population, it goes without saying that our entire citizenship will be the better for it.”

Born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois, just a stone’s throw from the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, Rosenwald worked his way to wealth as a salesman who got ahead of trends and invested in the future, as when he invested in a mail-order watch sales outfit back in 1895. That little watch seller was the Sears-Roebuck Company, and Rosenwald would eventually become the firm’s president.

His interest in social justice dovetailed with his opinions about money, which he viewed as a means to an end, a tool with which a man might shape a better future for his loved ones and his nation.
The Julius Rosenwald Fund, a Chicago-based philanthropic organization, was established in 1917 to provide grants for school construction in underserved African American communities. The seed for the idea was laid in 1913 when Rosenwald cleared Booker T. Washington to use some money he donated to the Tuskeegee Institute to build six small schools in rural Alabama. This test run must have been a success, because Rosenwald (a Tuskeegee trustee) soon began working closely with the Institute to take the experiment nationwide.

Rosenwald focused his school development program on states with mandated racial segregation in their schools. The Fund also required a local buy-in, with matching contributions from the local school district and African American community.

Rosenwald school buildings were also required to meet a specific design plan developed by Tuskeegee Institute architects, ensuring proper lighting, space, and sanitary conditions for students and teachers. The need for better school facilities was well known among the black community, as most African American schools of the era were dilapidated buildings housing little more than a few makeshift desks and benches.

Participation in the Rosenwald Fund program spread rapidly and brought welcome change to communities in need. By 1928, 15 states were participating in the program, and across the American South, one in every five rural schools for black students was a Rosenwald School. These institutions educated one-third of the region’s black schoolchildren.

By the time the Rosenwald Fund program concluded in 1932 (the year Julius Rosenwald passed away), the visionary industrialist and his partner communities had invested almost $28.5 million in construction. The Fund had built 4,977 new schools, constructed 217 homes for teachers, and 163 shop buildings.

The number of students served was staggering; a total of 663,615 had received an education thanks to the initiative and dedication of Rosenwald Fund communities.

In South Carolina, 481 Rosenwald-funded schools were erected, including the Society Hill School built in 1930. Locals like E.A. Sompayrac and Harold Russell donated land and wood for construction. The original four-acre campus had six teachers, five classrooms, an auditorium, a small library, two restrooms, and cost a total of $11,150.

The school became known as the Julius Rosenwald Consolidated School (later shortened to Rosenwald) and it educated thousands of Society Hill kids for generations. The school became something of a legacy for educators as well, with some teachers, like Robert Gerald and James Alston, serving the school for well over thirty years.

Cost-cutting at the district level forced a 1982 merger that sent Rosenwald High students to St. John’s High and Brunson Dargan Jr. High in Darlington.

Though the old wooden schoolhouse made way for modern brick buildings, the name has stood the test of time, and Rosenwald Elementary-Middle School still educates the children of Society Hill, cladding them with the town’s traditional eagle mascot and giving them a chance to soar, just like Mr. Rosenwald would have wanted.

Author: Duane Childers

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