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by Oliver Arney
In July 2020, the historic Canaan School in Columbia, Tennessee, built in 1928 and restored in 1998, burned to the ground. With this blaze, Tennessee lost one of its last Rosenwald Schools. A single-room school from the 1920s built for African American students during the height of segregation, the Canaan School served as a reminder of the long fight for equality. When it was built, segregation was the law, not only at the state level, but on the federal level as a result of a United States Supreme Court case in 1897. The case, Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled segregation as legal and “separate but equal” between Black and white citizens equitable. In the South, education segregation of Black and white citizens lasted until 1956, when Clinton High School became the first publicly funded school to desegregate.
The history of Rosenwald schools serves as an important reminder about the fight for equal rights, and the importance of preserving history.
Canaan School in Columbia, Tenn. (NewsChannel5.com)
As the Civil War was coming the end, The United States government set up the Freedman’s Bureau. One of its goals was to support African American education. This included the founding of Fisk University in Nashville in 1866. Booker T. Washington, a graduate of Fisk, was born to an enslaved woman in 1856. Washington began his life as an educator after college in 1880 when Alabama started the Tuskegee Normal School, now Tuskegee Institute, as a school to train African American teachers. Washington was named the principal of the school and oversaw growth under him. By 1888, the school sat on 510 acres, and by the time Julius Rosenwald joined the Tuskegee board in 1912, the campus had grown to over 2,000 acres and 83 buildings. Many of these buildings were constructed by the students themselves, a prescient act, as future Rosenwald schools would be constructed by the community.
Booker T. Washington promoting African American education in Lakeland, Tennessee, c. 1890-1915 (Library of Congress)
Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, 1871 (Tennessee State Museum Collection, 10.138)
Rosenwald was born in 1862 to German Jewish immigrants. He went on to become one of the most successful businessmen of the Gilded Age by amassing significant wealth through transforming Sears into a retail powerhouse. He met Washington after providing substantial funds for the African American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). In 1912, he joined the Tuskegee board and set up a special fund to promote education particularly in the South for African Americans.
Julius Rosenwald (RosenwaldPark.org)
While Rosenwald provided aid to schools in the South after his board appointment, it was not until 1917 when the Rosenwald Fund was created, to assist all Americans in gaining equal opportunities. The Rosenwald Fund was different in that it funded many programs across the United States. This fund was not granted in perpetuity but had a time limitation before the funds needed to be spent. While common in the distribution of grants today, this was an unusual approach for philanthropists at the time and meant that the money could be spent at a higher rate. A portion of this fund went on to African American education in the South. Although “Separate, but Equal” was the law, African American education, particularly in the South, was not a top priority for school boards and systems that systematically underfunded Black schools. Rosenwald schools were to be funded partially through the fund, and partially through a community matching of funds. Rosenwald Agents were tasked with meeting with community leaders and to help raise the communities’ portion of the funds. Fundraising did not just include the funding for schools, but matched funds for teacher living quarters and trade shops.
When it came to the architecture of the schools, the community had the final approval of the design because the community was responsible for the construction. Agents most likely helped select the design as a part of their job. The architecture was often simple yet innovative. According to Witold Rybczynski, emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Philadelphia, often the designs came from books. A Tuskegee Institute publication, The Negro Rural School and Its Relation to the Community (1915), included designs from Robert Robinson Taylor, who designed around 20 buildings at the Tuskegee Institute. American Schoolhouses, (1911) by Fletcher Bascom Dresslar, a professor of health education at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, encouraged functionality over grand designs. While each school varied in design and some were larger meant for the whole community, most were planned to incorporate key components. Many schools included an area for learning how to cook, and to learn trades. Some included partitions to divide classes up if need be. Windows needed to be aligned and larger to maximize sunlight since electricity was uncommon in rural areas. Most schoolhouses included a teachers’ quarters built along with it. Once, even Frank Lloyd Wright submitted a design in 1928, convinced by Tuskegee supporter and friend of Rosenwald, Darwin D. Martin, but it was never constructed.
Frank Lloyd Wright Design 1928 (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)
The Rosenwald Fund hired Robert E. Clay in 1917. Clay, born near Bristol in 1875, worked for Booker T. Washington until his death in 1915. As Rosenwald Agent, Clay worked to support the construction of Rosenwald Schools in counties including Haywood and Tipton, and the city of Kingsport. He helped communities raise half the funds needed for the schools, and the fund paid the other half. Some communities were more successful than others. While many members of the a community were encouraged for the possibility of a Rosenwald school, the reality was that in the segregated South, fear and awareness of racism and backlash were in the thoughts of the involved parties of the school. A Black institution partnering with a Jewish funded project meant that some schools had to be secretly funded. After a couple of schools were burned down in Missouri, the Rosenwald Fund began promising extra funds if arson was involved with the destruction. Some opponents to Rosenwald school used the legal system to stop construction. In Kingsport, Tennessee opponents would block construction to Rosenwald school for five years. In other cases, white men would steal tools and material from construction sites. This was in line with the constant state of terror felt by African Americans living in the South during the Jim Crow Era. In 1920, Samuel Smith moved from Chicago to Nashville to become the director for the school building program and oversaw the construction of many of Tennessee’s Rosenwald Schools. At the Canaan School in Columbia, a single teacher taught eight grades in the one room building using discarded books from the Maury county’s white students. It was one of 15 built in Maury County. Ultimately, the Rosenwald Fund was able to construct 374 schools, nine teachers’ quarters, and ten shops in Tennessee. By 1928, one-third of African American schools in the South were Rosenwald schools. When the program ended in 1932, over 5,000 schools had been constructed, and over 600,000 students were in attendance.
Rosenwald Community School Plans (MTSU Center for Historic Preservation)
After the Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education in 1954, the desegregation of schools began across the South. As a result, many Rosenwald schools began to close, but some remained as cultural and community centers. One such Rosenwald school, located in Sumner county in the community of Cairo, served students from first through eighth grades for over 35 years when it closed in 1959, after which it remained a community center. In 1966, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places and became a museum. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, only 10-12% of Rosenwald schools are still standing. In many towns, these historic schools serve as community foundations and a reminder of the fight for equal education. Education, as Booker T. Washington and Robert Clay thought, was one of the most important pieces of society. To learn more, the archives of the Julius Rosenwald Fund are held at Fisk University Special Collections (https://www.fisk.edu/academics/library/special-collection-and-archives/).
Oliver Arney is a Museum Program Assistant at the Tennessee State Museum
 Mary S. Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South (University Press of Florida, 2014) 261
 IBID, 262
 IBID, 263
 IBID, 263