The follow appears in a slightly different form as the cover story to the Winter 2023 edition of the Museum's Quarterly newsletter.
By Debbie Shaw
In 2015, Andrew Feiler, a Jewish American photographer from Georgia, had a conversation that would inspire an important new project. While having lunch with the State of Georgia African American Program Coordinator Jeanne Cyriaque, Feiler learned of Rosenwald Schools. He recalled that he immediately went home, researched all that he could find on the topic, and decided that he wanted to create a photographic account of the program. Over the next three and a half years, Feiler drove more than 25,000 miles and photographed 105 schools throughout the South. He not only captured the historic Rosenwald School structures, or, in some cases, their building sites, but also people associated with those schools. He interviewed former students, former teachers, historians and preservationists.
The result is A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America, an award-winning 2021 book of Feiler’s photographs complemented by informative essays, and a companion traveling exhibition that has been touring museums and cultural institutions in the Southeastern United States for the last two years. The exhibition opened at the Tennessee State Museum on February 24, 2023 and runs through May 21, 2023.
“The public response to the exhibition has been amazing,” says Feiler whose book, now in its third printing, was named photobook of the year by Prix de la Photographie Paris in 2022. “When the exhibition premiered in 2021 at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, several of the people featured in the book and their families traveled from afar to see the exhibition. When the work was on view at the Charlotte Museum of History in early 2022, the folks there said it was the best received exhibition that they’d ever had. And at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where the exhibition was on view in late 2022, groups of Rosenwald School alumni gathered to view the exhibition and were so excited to have a piece of their story and history being shared with wider audiences.”
Lincoln School - Bledsoe County, Tennessee 1926-1965 - Photo by Andrew Feiler
The Birth of Rosenwald Schools
The creation of the Rosenwald Fund’s school building program grew from a partnership between Booker T. Washington, president and founder of Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company who also sat on the Board of Trustees at Tuskegee. Washington appealed to Rosenwald, whose support for many charitable causes was inspired by his Jewish faith and life experiences, to invest in a new school building program that would help provide improved educational facilities for rural Black students. The central idea focused on creating modern school buildings designed to promote positive learning environments in communities where Black students often lacked access to adequate education facilities. The design of what would come to be known as the Rosenwald School featured large windows, providing light and healthy air circulation. Cloakrooms offered vital storage space, and room dividers could split classrooms into sections or allow them to be opened to create larger community spaces. The exteriors of the structures were kept modest and plain to deflect potential objections. Since Reconstruction, school buildings for Black children had been targets of arson and racial violence.
From 1912 to 1937, the Rosenwald Fund partnered with local Black communities and school officials to build 4,978 schools across 15 southern states. While the Rosenwald Fund’s building program did not directly challenge school segregation, it offered opportunities for Black communities to advocate for their children’s education and supported their demands for functional school facilities. Today, about 500 structures remain extant, with half having undergone major preservation work.
Lincoln Portrait, Warfield School - Montgomery County, Tennessee 1922-1968 - Photo by Andrew Feiler
“Many of these schools were built in the 1910s and 1920s yet many were active schools into the 1960s and even 1970s,” says Feiler. “Many of these schools served multiple generations so the connection between the communities and Julius Rosenwald was lost to history for many of these students. What I’ve been finding is that in reading my book and in seeing the exhibition, families are starting conversations about family history, and many are finding connections to Rosenwald schools they hadn’t known. By far the most emotionally rewarding part of my experience was meeting people who attended these schools, taught in these schools, and are devoting their lives to saving these schools.”
Challenge Grants and Community Fundraising
The Rosenwald Fund’s school building program was an early example of both a challenge grant – what we’ve come to commonly call “matching funds” – and a public/private partnership. Facilities for Black children were often overcrowded, in poor repair, and received fewer resources. While Black community members were already paying taxes to fund schools in their areas, they were also asked to make contributions to the building of the Rosenwald schools. This could be in the form of land, cash, labor or materials.
To raise the funds needed to qualify for the grant, they organized fish frys, bake sales and other events. Some farmers sectioned off areas of crops, known as “Rosenwald patches,” to dedicate toward fundraising. Black communities were also tasked with working with school officials. The Rosenwald Fund required that school buildings and properties were publicly owned, and local school officials had to agree to be responsible for the maintenance of the buildings and to contribute the funds to furnish the schools and pay for the teachers’ salaries. Julius Rosenwald donated the matching grant funds, and the amounts for grants were scaled according to the sizes and methods of construction for the proposed schools.
At the beginning of their partnership, Washington sent Rosenwald images of the students and teachers in and around the first completed schools. Rosenwald was so moved by the photographs and the apparent success of the program that he agreed to make larger contributions to the program. These photographs became a standard practice in the archival records of the schools and continued throughout reorganizations of the Rosenwald Fund’s operations. Feiler was inspired by the role that photography had played in the early and continuing history of the program. He chose a black and white format for his photographs specifically to represent this continued tradition and “bring people into hidden history that they may otherwise not have access to.”
Frank Brinkley and Charles Brinkley, Sr. - Educators, Brothers, Rosenwald School Alums - Photo by Andrew Feiler
On display at the Tennessee State Museum are 25 Feiler photographs and their accompanying story panels. One of those images is of Frank Brinkley and Charles Brinkley, Sr., alumni of the Rosenwald School in Cairo, Tennessee.
“Frank and Charles were two of the exceptional people I met along the way,” says Feiler. “They were both Rosenwald School alums; they both went to college and graduate school; they both became educators; and both were involved in the preservation of the Cairo School. In my research, I spent hours online finding surviving schools, stories associated with these schools, and people associated with these schools. I found a photograph of the Cairo School while it was undergoing renovation and there was a sign out front with the names of the architect, the contractor, and other organizations involved in restoring the Cairo School. I called the architect and he said to me, “You need to meet Frank Brinkley!”
Andrew Feiler - Photo by Manuel Llaneras
Feiler sat down with Frank and Charles Brinkley as part of the Museum’s “In Conversation” series on Saturday, February 25 in the Museum’s Digital Learning Center. A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America's final day at the Museum is Sunday May 21, 2023.
The Museum will follow Feiler’s show with Building a Bright Future: Black Communities and Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee, a new exhibition that focuses on the impact, legacy and preservation of Rosenwald Schools specifically in Tennessee. It will run June 16, 2023 – February 25, 2024.
Debbie Shaw is the Tennessee State Museum Curator of Archeology