The Howard County Historical Society hosted a lecture on a disappearing history of Black education, earlier this month.
“Lunch Date With History,” an ongoing lecture series at the Museum of Howard County History, hosted a talk with docent Mattie Hays about the story of Rosenwald Schools.
Numbering more than 5,000, Rosenwald Schools was a joint project between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald.
A reproduction of a Rosenwald school classroom. This space, restored as an Endangered Maryland site is now part of a museum experience in Capitol Heights, Maryland.
Rosenwald, the son of German-Jewish immigrants and clothier by trade, steadily rose from lead supplier, to an investor, to president and finally, chairman of Sears Roebuck in the first half of the 20th century. Simultaneously, Washington was rising to notoriety as a leader in the mission of Black education in the post-Reconstruction and solidifying Jim Crow Era.
Washington’s network of contacts, labor and intelligentsia, combined with Rosenwald’s vast wealth in a pilot program of six schools overseen by Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
Both proponents of Washington’s theories on self help, Rosenwald insisted on matching funds from Black and White communities when the program expanded across the South.
Blacks raised $4.7 million to contribute. When cash was unavailable, the Rosenwald Fund would accept labor.
Rosenwald schools were most numerous in the former confederacy, however, Rosenwald schools came to Maryland too. They were established in the counties of Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Wicomico, Montgomery and the aforementioned Howard.
A 2011, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago study found a significant relationship between the development of these schools and the rise in test scoring, literacy and the Northern migration of its students.
In the end, the Rosenwald Fund established schools in 15 states and almost 900 counties.
The end came with Brown v. Board of Education. With the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion that public schools desegregate, and Brown II’s opinion that it be swift, these all-Black schools were abandoned. The overwhelming majority of those schools that were not outright demolished succumbed to neglect.
Even in their pinnacle, Rosenwald schools never achieved the funding or quality of its counterpart, White schools.
There is currently some effort to preserve the structures that remain as historical significant reminders of the value of education and investment in the Black community. The Highland Park School in Prince George’s County, a former Rosenwald structure, continues to operate as a Head Start Center.