Pop quiz: which of the world’s largest retailers was the first to make enormous philanthropic investments in the cause of building new schools to educate poor black children?

It’s a trick question. My bet is that your mind quickly thought of Walmart and the proliferation of charter schools.


Well, the Walton family was not the first to commit a significant fortune to building a heat map of independently run schools.

Long before contemporary charter schools started lunging out of the reform kettle like academic popcorn it was Sears that provided the big dollars to fund the growth of new schools in poor black communities.

Yes. That Sears.

First, some context. The early twentieth century was rough on America’s black people. Economically. Politically. Socially. It was a trying time. And the one avenue to betterment, education, was closed to us. Black folks couldn’t steal an education through the systems controlled by white local education authorities in the backwaters of the first world. Most blacks at the time were southern, rural, and struggling to make any progress in hostile societies. It would be generous to call their educational opportunities inferior. The schools that existed were incurably hampered by inadequate facilities, lack of essential supplies, and purposeful neglect.

As a result…

…white-run public institutions were not held accountable for these failures since blacks lacked political representation. As a consequence, black born in the South between 1880 and 1910 completed 3 fewer years of schooling than their white counterparts. While both groups made absolute gains, blacks experienced no relative progress over this 30-year period.  – Daniel Aaronson, Bhashkar Mazumder, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

Hungry for education, and seeing it as liberation, the black community responded to racial aggression the way it always has. It produced its own life-saving solutions.

In previous years there were “freedmen schools” and intergenerational education collaboratives where community members invested their limited funds, sparse time, and incredible passion to teach the young and old alike to read, write, and compute. Temporary northern teachers, mostly white women from missionary aid groups, came to teach. Northern philanthropist funded the imperfect movement. Government did what government does, often poorly, to help.

Still, those efforts never produced anything approaching the scaling up of educational quality that would take place when black self-help theory collided with philanthropic opportunity.

It happened in 1913 when Booker T. Washington convinced Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears & Roebuck, to aid the countless southern black families that were trapped socially, politically, and economically because access to meaningful education was nonexistent. As a pragmatist, Washington knew there were a million ways to address the numerous grievances black folks held, but education was an expedient and faithful weapon to hack through the most common debilitating condition: poverty. His pitch to Rosenwald resulted in a matching grant program that funded construction of black school houses across the south. It validated both man’s belief in hard work, self-help, and education as a means for combating racial inequity. Their partnership started with a handful of schools near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but when their building surge ended there were 5,300 schools in 15 states.

 In 1912, as part of a much larger philanthropic effort, Rosenwald gave $25,000 to the Tuskegee Institute. At the suggestion of Tuskegee’s president, Booker T. Washington, part of this money was used to build six schools in rural Alabama. Pleased with the result, in 1917, Rosenwald established a challenge-grant program that led to the construction of nearly 5,000 schools throughout the rural South. Rosenwald hoped to build a school in every rural county in the South. By 1928, one in five schools for Black students in the South was a Rosenwald school. The schools provided space for more than 600,000 students. The program ended in 1932 with Rosenwald’s death. – The Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education

Here is a map showing the reach of the Rosenwald schools.

Rosenwald Gap Closing II
Rosenwald Schools Across the South

Rosenwald schools were not the proverbial “silver bullet.” They didn’t cure every social ill or magically deconstruct centuries of crushing white power. Life in the post-reconstruction south was still harsh as it had always been. But the “Rosenwald” schools offered safe space and reprieve from injustice. They were little monuments of self-care, hope, and freedom. And, in the end, they introduced something that had been foreign to black communities: a stable platform for self-improvement, political empowerment, and social mobility. These were more than school buildings, they were collectively built assets that inspired communal aspirations and accountability.

Black students often had to walk several miles to their schools, sometimes passed on the road by school buses carrying their white neighbors to their better-equipped schools, but when the black students arrived, Rosenwald schools were a haven from prejudice. Their black teachers and principals were loving and supportive. Many children knew their parents and neighbors had raised money and in some cases even done the physical work of building the schools. – Stephanie Deutsch writes (“You Need a Schoolhouse“)

The spread of better schools was a game changer. It raised the stakes for what was possible and what black communities should expect for their children (and themselves as lifelong learners). The buildings were modern for their times and well appointed with books, furniture, and learning materials. Teachers were recruited and given guarantees of minimum salaries, new homes, and professional development. Suddenly, a quality education was within reach of marginalized black communities at an unthinkable scale.

One notable feature of the Rosenwald grant program was its requirement that all local parties be vested in the success of the schools. One third of funding came from philanthropy (Rosenwald and his allies), one third from local education officials, and one third from the black community itself. Drawing on Washington’s example, where industrial students made the bricks and designed and built the building that they learned in, the Rosenwald schools were produced by the labor of black community members who physically and financially built the schools their children would enter. That’s an incredible level of engagement that exists in a place far remote from the facile concepts of parent “engagement” or “involvement” that we obsess over today. Unlike contemporary education politics, where the sum total of the “democratic” ideal of schooling is the debatable power of community members to “elect” school board members who will most often succumb to the political bureaucracy rather than represent the black or brown electorate, parents of Rosenwald students had direct power over the care and management of their schools from day one. This unusual power gave them the ability to define education for themselves and their community.

It’s a power missing from every school reform discussion we have a century later. Anti-reformers argue with a logic that results in them remaining in complete control, overseeing the perpetuation of the traditionally oppressive educational apparatus. Reformers counter with a logic that results in them owning the new and improved apparatus, and then offering subleases to marginalized community members. Neither “side” of the debate is ready to envision a world where black and brown communities are the mortgage holders of their own system of schooling.

Like Washington, we must pick our allies wisely, pragmatically, and always with the understanding that they are routinely impaired by their inability to recognize the limits of their cognitive superiority. It was that way with abolitionists, and then civil rights workers of the 1960’s; and it remains the same with today’s fighters for better schools

Our friends in the school reform movement today might find the Rosenwald schools to be a jaunty little story, especially since it highlights a sort of historic precedence for the public/private partnerships that drive the prospering of charter schools and, perhaps, the missionary zeal of Teach For America. But, a nice story is not enough for them (rightfully so). The inclination of these data champions will be to ask “what were the results”?

They will want to know if the Rosenwald schools made a difference?

According to a rigorous study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago the answer is “yes.”

…over a moderately short period of time between the world wars, the southern racial education gap declined markedly. While no single explanation likely accounts for this rapid convergence, we show that the Rosenwald Rural Schools Initiatives is a significant contributor, explaining 40 percent of the narrowing of the racial education gap among the cohorts we study. Moreover, the program stimulated migration to better labor market opportunities in the North. In sum, the Rosenwald initiative highlights the large productivity gains that can arise when substantial improvements to school quality and access are introduced to relatively deprived environments. The conclusion is accentuated by the especially large gains measured in communities that were contending with the worst pre-Rosenwald educational conditions.

So, a partnership to build independently run schools in marginalized communities did make a difference. Even more so in the communities that had it the worst. That example should not be lost in the barbs and stings exchanged by those fighting for the soul of public education today. For black folks, “public education” has taken many different forms and we should heed our history, and resist the trappings of anyone else’s definitions.

We would do well to remember that history is at all times rich with context for the work we do now because so often our talk about school reform and educational justice lacks the important perspective that exists beyond the last decade.  Too often it seems national commentators are unaware they are rehashing the “negro problem” debate, and repeating the same level of thinking that causes said “problem.” They speak confidently about what is best for poor children of color without realizing they have no idea.

Their biggest failing is the failure to consult history – specifically, black history, which is full of inventive, successful, meaningful examples illustrating a path for oppressed people to save themselves.

This should be our message: “We are the answer, not the problem. Your systems are the problem, not our salvation.”

As many in the white educational hegemony continue to funk up the room with the foggy claims of “privatization” and “neo-liberalism” and other college-derived and privilege protecting language devices acquired from Salon.com, Truth Out, and Counterpunch, which are basically hipster outlets bought off to defend the economic right of a new breed of vocationalist, obstructionist overseer, the truth will speak softly through the relevant and honestly counter-cultural case studies like Rosenwald schools.

Damn your precious liberal values, we need an education whether you can pay your mortgage by its administration or not.

Likewise, as the proponents of reform design the blueprint for our educational uplift in laboratories and board rooms where few of us exist, and where the good intentions and collegiate brilliance of the architects are deemed to be proxy for material inclusion of the oppressed, the real solution will sit quietly and obviously behind the screens displaying the well-prepared PowerPoints with all their fancy chevrons and bullet points, waiting to be discovered by the first of them to rebuke their terminal chutzpah and accept the good news of history.

The call of the past is inescapable, but the journey to a positive, alternative future is not. Only those with vested reasons for maintaining injustice will fail to listen.

And that, of course, is nothing new. That’s history too.

For more perspective, see the video and study below.

Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South from Virginia Historical Society on Vimeo.


Rosenwald and Black Achievement

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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