Former pupils of Rosenwald Schools, built for African-Americans in the rural South, work to restore the buildings where they studied and the zeal they held for learning.
Eighty years have passed since the death of businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, an original co-owner of retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Company. Rosenwald’s imaged has faded, but the legacy he left behind, though imperiled, is being reclaimed board by board, memory by memory: the thousands of Rosenwald Schools he helped build across the American South.
More than 800 Rosenwald schools were created in North Carolina alone, and some of the buildings, including Hamilton Colored School in Hamilton and the E.J. Hayes Colored School in Williamston, have survived. Nearly five decades have passed since the schools closed, but former Rosenwald students have formed a movement to preserve the structures and document their history. The effort is providing rural communities with space for reflection and congregation; it also recalls a time when many rural African-Americans saw education as a precious opportunity.
Rosenwald’s desire to help African-Americans began in his native Illinois, where he witnessed the social neglect that African-Americans were suffering in the early 1900s. In a society of racial segregation, black children had inadequate school books.
An affluent man of German-Jewish descent, Rosenwald first paid for the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama, which opened in 1913 and 1914. Not wanting to publicize his dedication to African-Americans, Rosenwald initially kept his funding a secret.
But not for long. He established the Rosenwald Fund in 1917. By this time Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, had discussed building more schools in the South for the education of African-Americans. Each agreed to contribute a third of the overall expense, and the African-American community would raise the other third. Of the $70 million that Rosenwald ultimately donated to his fund, $33 million was devoted to the rural school building program, producing 5,357 Rosenwald schools serving African-Americans in the rural South.
In the late 1950s, following the Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Rosenwald Schools closed. Some of these schools were torn down to construct new buildings. Others fell into disrepair. A very few are still standing today. People drive by these old buildings not knowing the historical value they hold.
Mattie Randolph, Ethel Randolph Blanks, and Mary Randolph attended the Hamilton Colored School from the late 1940s through late 1950s. Like the Randolph sisters, Williamston resident Richard Mizelle, Sr., also attended a Rosenwald school, E.J. Hayes. Their efforts to preserve Rosenwald schools, if successful, would help ensure that the Rosenwald legacy is not forgotten.
They have formed a committee to teach people, especially children, what African-Americans like themselves once had to endure for an education. “Some students didn’t have food to eat,” remembered Mattie Randolph. “While my sisters and I ate, some kids would spend that hour playing in the playground. They would not eat until they would get home, seven hours later,” she said.
Richard Mizelle had to walk to school each day because there were no buses for transportation. “I had to walk to school, three miles to go and three miles back home,” Mizelle said smiling. “But, it didn’t matter because I had many friends I would walk with. We enjoyed walking to school.”
Ethel Randolph remembered learning multiplication. “Every morning the teacher would make us stand in front of the class and we would go over them, one through twelve,” Ethel recalled. “It saddens me that kids these days are introduced with a calculator at a premature age. We used our brains when we went to school.”
The former Rosenwald students say that today’s young children don’t appreciate what schools now provide.
“Even though we were given the used books from the white schools, we learned, and I consider the ways we learned a blessing,” said Mary Randolph. “This is why I want our kids to know the history of the Rosenwald schools — so that they’ll know that we didn’t have it easy, yet, we appreciate what we were given.”
These two Rosenwald schools are now being renovated to serve their respective communities. The Hamilton Colored School is located alongside the Roanoke River. When the renovation is complete in 2019, the building will serve as a museum, a welcome center for people who travel up and down the river, and an information center for those who want to learn more about the Rosenwald School.
“The outside has been completely renovated,” said Ethel Randolph. “We are now working on the inside. We are all excited.”
While the Hamilton Colored School project is scheduled to be completed over the next seven years, the E.J. Hayes Colored School will be renovated and ready for use sooner.
“In approximately two years, if the community wants to use the E.J. Hayes center for whatever reason, I think it will be ready,” said Mizelle. “It will serve the citizens. I, personally, want people to know the results of my school. Not to mention, I have a doctoral degree in psychology. Other students became doctors, lawyers, court judges, people of good use in society.”
The Rosenwald Schools are now listed on the national register of historic places. Sustained by the will, gratitude and memories of former students, Hamilton and E.J. Hayes will not vanish.
Cruz Santibanez, from Clinton, North Carolina, is a student in the Bachelors of Journalism program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.