Skip to main content

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington building better education

Written By | Jul 20, 2021
Rosenwald, Washington, Schools, South

Image courtesy of Go Fund me account to create movie – https://www.gofundme.com/f/rosenwald-schools-film-grant-match

WASHINGTON: At a time when we are hearing a great deal about racial division, it is important to remember the important collaboration one hundred years ago of Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, the president of the  Sears, Roebuck, and Company.  The two men first met in 1911 at a Chicago luncheon.

In the book “You Need a Schoolhouse”  (Northwestern University Press), Stephanie Deutsch offers a fascinating look into the partnership that would bring thousands of modern schoolhouses to African American communities in the rural South.

Julius Rosenwald was one of America’s wealthiest men and was committed to philanthropy.  

He was influenced by the Reform Jewish tradition of seeking to improve and repair the world. Active in the Chicago Sinai Congregation, he was close to its rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch, who advised him to use part of his wealth to help build schools for black students in the segregated South.  With Washington, Rosenwald entered into a massive project based on the use of matching funds from local communities.

Washington leaped onto the national scene following the nationwide publication of his speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895.




This was the same year that respected abolitionist Frederick Douglass died.  Douglass, one of Washington’s personal heroes, had been black America’s leader and spokesman for 50 years.  Washington inherited Douglass’ firm belief in the strength and capability of his black brethren.

When asked by a white journalist, “What do you blacks want from white people,?” Douglass replied, “Just leave us alone and we can take care of ourselves.”

It was Washington’s firm belief that former slaves could stand on their own feet and achieve prosperity in American society.

The most important theme for Washington was education.  

A second theme, closely tied to education, was self-reliance.  Tuskegee began as a Normal School and focused on training black men and women to become skilled at building, farming, and other occupations so they could earn their way into mainstream American society.  A third Washington theme was entrepreneurship.  Living at a time of racism and segregation, Washington encouraged black men and women to look at the need for goods and services in their communities as an opportunity to start their own businesses.

In 1900, Washington founded the first black businessman’s association, the National Negro Business League.  He personally helped many black businesses get started by introducing black entrepreneurs to white investors.

In recent days, Booker T. Washington has come under criticism within some circles.  

Professor Anne Wortham of Illinois State University declares that,

“As a member of the Tuskegee Institute class of 1963, I was the beneficiary of Booker T. Washington’s legacy…One of Washington’s well known metaphors was ‘Cast down your bucket where you are’…Washington’s critics have distorted the metaphor to suggest that his words were those of an appeaser of white racism..It is wrongly used to suggest that. Washington believed the best approach to race relations was that  blacks should not protest the system of white supremacy that blocked their striving.  But if Washington actually believed that blacks should not protest the state of their community, why did he devote all of his life to promoting industrial education, economic self-sufficiency, self-responsibility and self-cultivation?…’Cast down your bucket’ was the advocacy, not of resignation or passive accommodation, but of self-initiated and self-responsible action.”

In 1901, Washington published his autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” which became the best-selling book ever written by an African American.  More than an autobiography, Up from Slavery was eventually translated into seven languages. The book being as popular in Europe as it was in Africa.  It was an explication of Washington’s major themes:  education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship.

In 1910, the Chicago Tribune asked several prominent Chicagoans which books had most influenced them. 

Julius Rosenwald, identified as one of Chicago’s leading citizens, named two.  They were “An American Citizen:  The Life of William Henry Baldwin, Jr.” and Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery.”  The book about Baldwin writes Stephanie Deutsch,

“…did not describe the exciting events of an adventurous life, but, rather, the way one man answered a question he himself found vital, a question of great interest to Rosenwald:  is it possible to succeed in business without sacrificing personal morality and idealism?  Baldwin, president of the Southern Railway, made it his stated goal to use his influence and his wealth for the good of his workers…A large part of the book dealt with a subject especially dear to Baldwin—-his work as a member of the board of Tuskegee and his relationship with Booker T. Washington.”

Describing how the connection between Rosenwald and Washington began, Deutsch notes that,



“It was a chance encounter on a train and their mutual connection to the YMCA movement that led to the meeting, which later seemed so inevitable, between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald.  On one of his northern trips, Washington fell into a conversation with Wilber Messer, a white minister and general Secretary of Chicago’s YMCA.  He asked Messer if he could suggest a wealthy person from Chicago who might have an interest in serving on the board of Tuskegee.  Messer named Julius Rosenwald.  He then ensured that the two men would meet by inviting both to speak at the annual YMCA dinner in Chicago in May 1911.”

The rest, of course, is history. Julius Rosenwald joined the board of Tuskegee.

Visiting Tuskegee, writes Deutsch,

“…introduced Rosenwald to some of the less pleasing aspects of life for blacks in the South.  On one of the early visits , driving in the countryside not far from Tuskegee, Rosenwald and Washington passed a dilapidated wooden shack with just one window.  That, Booker T. Washington told Rosenwald, was a typical state-run primary school for black children in Alabama.  He explained that thanks to two northern donors——Anna Jeans, a Quaker woman who had given $1 million to aid black teachers in a fund administered through the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board, and Henry Rogers, an executive of the Standard Oil Company—-some new schools had been built.  But Jeans and Rogers had both recently died, and there was a huge need throughout the state and the entire South for more and better schoolhouses for black children.”

Rosenwald and Washington embarked upon a program to help build schools for black children across the South.  

Rosenwald began by providing funds to build six small schools in rural Alabama, opening in 1913 and 1914.  In the end, more than 5,000 schools were constructed across the South. Rosenwald providing a portion of the funds and local communities raising the remainder. By 1932, there was a “Rosenwald School,” as they became known, in every county with a significant black population in the South.  A third of all black children in the South were attending Rosenwald schools.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once said that he would donate to anything Rosenwald did because he had complete trust in his philanthropy.

John Lewis – Rosenwald School Alumnni

One of the towering figures of the civil rights movement, the late Rep. John Lewis, grew up on an Alabama farm south of Tuskegee.  The elementary school he attended was a Rosenwald School.

In his memoir, “Walking With The Wind,” Lewis recalls the fish fries, picnics, and carnivals that neighbors would organize to raise money for supplies for the school.  He wrote that to his parents,

“Education represented an almost mythical key to the kingdom of America’s riches, the kingdom so long denied to our race.”  

In the years of slavery, it was illegal to even teach black children to read.

Stephanie Deutsch, who is married to the great-grandson of Julius Rosenwald, concludes:

“Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald were men who judged each other not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.  Certainly, each had something the other wanted—-Julius had wealth and influence that Booker needed to further his work;  Washington was connected to a segment of society Rosenwald wished to encourage but knew little about.  But each judged—-correctly——that the other had goals larger than himself…the schools they built assured people in otherwise forgotten corners of the rural South that they could offer their children opportunities they themselves had been denied.  The Rosenwald schools provided for the children who attended them not just  book learning but also a personal legacy from Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald of faith in democracy, optimism, confidence, and hope.”

There are many lessons for today from the collaboration of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald if only we would study our history more carefully.

 

######

Read More from Allan Brownfeld

About the Author: 

Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century.  Visit his Writers Page to learn more.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.