A Better Life for Their Children

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington forged one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and Black Americans to create schools throughout the nation for Black children. This exhibition showcases some of the photographs Andrew Feiler took of the 105 Rosenwald Schools.

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Photography, storytelling & original curation by Andrew Feiler. Digital curation by Sam Landis.

Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, & the 4,978 Schools that Changed America

Born to Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company and turn it into the world’s largest retailer. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington became the founding principal of Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald and Washington met in 1911. At that time, many southern communities didn't have public schools for Black students. If they did, the schools were in terrible facilities with outdated materials and a fraction of the funding provided for educating White children.

Rosenwald and Washington, forging one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and African Americans, attacked this education challenge with originality and sophistication and created the program that became known as Rosenwald Schools.

“There is nothing just now more needed in the education of the colored people than the matter of small schoolhouses and I am very anxious that the matter be thoroughly planned for and well worked out.”

Booker T. Washington,
Educator, Presidential Adviser,
Founder of Tuskegee Institute

From 1912 to 1932, the Rosenwald schools program built 4,977 schools for African American children across fifteen southern and border states. One final school was added in 1937. This program drove dramatic improvement in African American educational attainment and fostered the generation who became the leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.

“I am interested in America. I do not see how America can go ahead if part of its people are left behind.”

Julius Rosenwald,
Businessman, Philanthropist,
Benefactor for the Rosenwald Schools program

Julius Rosenwald & Booker T. Washington – Quilt Celebrating Restoration of the Pine Grove School (2021) by Photographed by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington Together in 1915

One of the few photographs of  Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington together dates from 1915 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The image was printed on fabric and sewn by Evelyn Albert into a quilt that commemorates the restoration of the Pine Grove School in South Carolina.

Loachapoka School, Lee County, Alabama (2021) by Photographed by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

The first Rosenwald School

The very first Rosenwald School to open was the Loachapoka School in Lee County, Alabama. It was part of a pilot launched by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald in 1912 to test the idea of building schools for African American children. The pilot consisted of six schools. 

Photograph of Rosenwald Bay Springs School, Forrest County, Mississippi (2021) by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Bay Springs School, Forrest County, Mississippi

Vernon Dahmer Sr.'s grandfather donated land for the Bay Springs School in 1925. Dahmer, who had attended the school, was the head of the Forrest County NAACP, he was later killed by the KKK. Dahmer's son led the restoration of the school, which now serves as a community center.

Students and Teachers at Jefferson Jacob School, The Filson Historical Society (2021) by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Students and Teachers at Jefferson Jacob School

Teachers and students photographed in the 1920s in front of the Jefferson Jacob School. Early in the school building program, Booker T. Washington sent Rosenwald photographs like this of schoolchildren and teachers, and they contributed to his decision to expand the initiative.

Lincoln Portrait, Warfield School, Montgomery County, Tennessee (2021) by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Lincoln Portrait, Warfield School, Montgomery County

The Warfield School is owned by Montgomery County, which undertook an extensive renovation to create a particularly nice community center. One classroom, preserving schoolhouse's heritage, includes desks, schoolbooks, attendance records, and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Photograph of John Lewis – Civil Rights Leader, U.S. Congressman, Rosenwald School Former Student (2021) by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Congressman John Lewis, a Rosenwald School student

Congressman John Lewis, who attended a Rosenwald School, was known as “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.” As a young boy growing up in rural Alabama, he was inspired by the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and became an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Interior of Lincoln School, Bledsoe County, Tennessee (2021) by Photographed by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Lincoln School, Bledsoe County, Tennessee

All the walls and ceilings of the Lincoln School are covered with decorative pressed tin, an illustration of the pride that the Pikeville community had in their school. The Lincoln School opened in 1926, today it serves as a community center after former students restored it. 

Valerie Coleman & Marian Coleman, Curators, Descendants of Rosenwald School Builder Webster Wheeler (2021) by Photographed by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Valerie and Marian Coleman, Descendants of Webster Wheeler

Webster Wheeler left Cassville, Georgia, and arrived in Detroit as part of the Great Migration. The photograph of him that is in the frame dates from his time in his new city. Upon hearing that his hometown had been awarded a Rosenwald grant, he returned and built the new school.

Eleanor Roosevelt School, Meriwether County, Georgia (2021) by Photographed by Andrew FeilerThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt School, Meriwether County, Georgia

Franklin Roosevelt was impressed when he saw a Rosenwald school near his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. He asked Samuel Smith to build another school in Meriwether County. When the final funding came up $1,000 short, Roosevelt wrote a personal check to close the gap.

Of the original 4,978 Rosenwald Schools, about 500 survive.

While some have been repurposed and a handful remain active schools, many remain unrestored and at risk of collapse. To tell this story visually, Andrew Feiler drove more than twenty-five thousand miles, photographed 105 schools, and interviewed dozens of former students, teachers, preservationists, and community leaders in all fifteen of the program states.

I was curious. I was hungry to learn. I was absolutely committed to giving my all in the classroom. My parents would describe education in almost mythical terms, that it offered the keys to the kingdom of America, that it offered the keys to a better life and to the opportunity so long denied our race.

John Lewis,
Civil Rights Leader, U.S. Congressman,
Former Rosenwald School Student

See the exhibit in person at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
May 22nd - December 12th, 2021
Plan your visit to The Center at civilandhumanrights.org/visit/

Learn more about the exhibit at civilandhumanrights.org/exhibit/rosenwald-schools-exhibition/

Credits: Story

Photography, storytelling & original curation by Andrew Feiler.
To learn more about him and his work, visit andrewfeiler.com.

Digital Curation by Sam Landis.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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