Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Rosenwald Influence: A Douglass Experience



Your former Douglass High School has an historic connection.. another dimension that brings along a GREAT amount of pride with it.

Douglass was a Rosenwald School.

Not the school building on Louis Street, built in 1951. The FIRST Douglass School building on East Sevier Avenue at Center Street, built in 1928, was a Rosenwald School. Although the school name was changed from Oklahoma Grove to the Douglass School in 1929, the original name for the new building on file at the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville long ago, was "The Douglass-Rosenwald School."

So, exactly what is a Rosenwald School?


This story begins in the early part of the 20th century with Booker T. Washington, the great champion of African-American justice. Washington drew lots of attention from white politicians, philanthropists, and educators, as he sought to make life better for his people.

First of all, understand that Booker T. Washington was a very smart man.

Although he knew his people needed to help themselves, he also thought the best way for his people to move forward was for them to be educated. Getting a good education, he always felt, would not only help African-Americans survive, it would elevate them in the eyes of white people. One of his main goals was for rural black children to have safe, multi-purpose school buildings. It was a lofty goal--most black schools in the South were dilapidated structures.. drafty buildings with rats in the corners, and walls that could barely stand.

Washington wanted better for his people, and he knew any improvement would cost money.

It was to that end, he always somehow surrounded himself with influential whites people of the time.. businessmen, movers and shakers, industrialists, men of character, men of financial integrity.


One of those men was Julius Rosenwald.

Rosenwald, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, was a partner in Sears, Roebuck and Company back in the early 1900's. By establishing the company's soon-to-be-famous mail-order business, he rescued the store chain from bankruptcy and became a wealthy man. Rosenwald had many philanthropic interests, among them, the plight of African-Americans. He donated millions of dollars for programs to help the underprivileged in his hometown of Chicago, and many other large cities. His spirit of giving to what he considered worthwhile causes was well documented.

Booker T. Washington saw the financial potential in that, and named Rosenwald a Board member at Tuskegee Institute, the African-American school for higher learning he led.

Their friendship grew quite strong.


If it were possible to overhear one of their many conversations, as they strolled along the campus at Tuskegee.. "You know, my friend," Washington probably said, "I'm encouraged by the wonderful education the students are getting here on campus."

"They do seem to be learning a lot," Rosenwald probably replied, as the birds chirped in the breeze. "It amazes me how they get to campus, and they leave smarter than when they got here."

"You know, if we could just touch their lives early on," Washington might have responded.. "Their elementary schools are so run down, it's difficult to shape those little minds.. if their parochial schools don't provide a good enough atmosphere to learn. I wonder how we could remedy that?"

"Those children deserve the same kind of learning environment as the white children down the street," probably offered Rosenwald.

"I'll tell you what," Washington continued. "Let's pick some schools to experiment with, I know of a couple close by. Let's fix 'em up, make them places that the children will want to come to, and we'll see what happens."

"I like that idea, my friend," Rosenwald probably said, as they turned a corner of the historic Tuskegee campus, toward the warm Alabama sunset.


Washington wasted no time.

He picked 6 rundown black elementary schools in the immediate Tuskegee area hidden in the rolling hills of the rural Alabama countryside. The Loachopoka School in Lee County, Alabama, was the very first Rosenwald School, to feel the buzz of the saw, the hammering of the nail and the sweat of the brow. True to his word, Julius Rosenwald donated money from his own pocket to rebuild Loachopoka and the 5 other schools. He mandated warm classrooms and school lunches, together with black instructors who had a knack for teaching black children.

The results were impressive.

Black children immediately embraced their new learning environment. So impressed was Rosenwald that he established a fund, for the sole purpose of either building new, or refurbishing old, black elementary and high schools around the South. Through the Rosenwald Foundation, headquartered in Chicago with an administrative office in Nashville, Tennessee, 4,977 schools, shop buildings and teacher homes were built, a total of 5,401 structures in all.

But African-Americans had to prove they deserved the schools. Black residents had to also contribute money, and the Rosenwald Foundation would also put up funds, to show the white school boards and districts they meant business.


"What struck me and what I think is very important to remember," says Dr. Nancy Stetten, Education Consultant with the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville, "is to realize the extent to which the local community contributed to the construction of the schools. I don't know if white schools had to be built with the help of donations from local people, but if you check the Rosenwald Schools, you'll see that the local black community gave financial support to constructing the building, along with financial support from the Rosenwald Foundation, and ultimately the white Board of Education."

"Back then, that was obviously a strain for the black people of the community," she says. "There were not a lot of very wealthy people there, but they did contribute."


400 miles from Tuskegee and a world away from Alabama, the Oklahoma School was struggling dearly as the educational institution for African-Americans in Kingsport, Tennessee. It was passed down to the black community when the city built a new school for the white children that formerly occupied it. Oklahoma's history pre-dated all the other schools in Kingsport, and even the incorporation of Kingsport as a city. Located in an open area near the Robert E. Lee School location, Oklahoma was renamed the Oklahoma Grove School for the stand of oak trees that surrounded it.

According to ole timers in the black community, the school had been given to them in a run-down condition at first, and local parents had already been struggling to keep it standing. At first, the school housed about 40 black children, but the student population was growing rapidly. Learning in a distracted environment, soon became a challenge.


It was no secret that many of Kingsport's black parents used their skills to shore up the building and make repairs, so that their children could learn in a comfortable environment. Stoking the fireplace, patching the walls, sometimes right in the middle of classes, students huddled up in the winter, sweating and fanning in the spring... through pictures and personal accounts, the building was lucky to be standing--every year, the building deteriorated even more, such that repairs became futile at best.

Any subsequent attempt at finding and locating the school in pre-occupied buildings, produced the same results for the African-American community. Each time the "Oak Grove School" moved to locations at Walnut Avenue (now Sevier) and Myrtle Street, and the 700 block of Sullivan Street at "5-Points" where the chinese restaurant is now located, students and teachers found the buildings in deplorable condition.

Eventually, Kingsport's apparent dead-end attempts to locate a permanent home for the city's African-American children to learn, attracted the attention of the Rosenwald Foundation, which immediately came forward with a plan to help fund a new all-black school for the city.

To the rescue came Robert E. Clay, Julius Rosenwald's state agent in charge of dispensing funds for the Rosenwald Foundation, based in Nashville.

"Bob Clay was a very dynamic and pursuasive speaker," remembers Jill Ellis, who, as a child, attended many meetings with her parents the Looney's, that Clay would hold. "Anywhere he could speak to a group of black residents, be it at churches, meetings, programs, picnics.. you would find him there, convincing black people to give up their money to help build local schools for black children. And you've got to remember.. 25 cents here, 50 cents there, a dollar around the corner.. that was a lot of money back during the Great Depression. Black people did not have a lot of money. But that's where Clay's charisma came in: 'Let us build these schools so that our black children can learn in a positive environment, just like the white children.' Somehow he got it."

"Clay was a native of Bristol," says Mrs. Ellis, "I don't know if it was Tennessee or Virginia. Even though he was serious in his fundraising, I always remembered him to be a fun person, always laughing, always loving a good joke, and having a special feeling for Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City. But it was Kingsport he made a special emphasis for, in the Tri-Cities."

"He may have been less successful in fundraising in his hometown and in Johnson City, but based on the contributions from the black people of Kingsport, he made quite an impact."

According to the Rosenwald Card File Database at Nashville's Fisk University, the Douglass-Rosenwald School in Kingsport was built in 1928-1929 on 2 acres at the corner of the old Bristol Highway (now Center Street) and East Walnut Avenue (now East Sevier Avenue) at a total cost of $52,235 dollars.

Of that, the file notes that local Negroes (as referenced in the file) contributed $400 dollars, and the Rosenwald Foundation put up $3,150 dollars towards the construction. Once the Kingsport City School Board saw that the community was giving of its own money and an outside source was willing to help finance a new building, the Board allocated the remaining $48,775.

The building was an eight-teacher type structure. Rosenwald Foundation planners had one type of school, designed for a north-south plat, and also one for an east-west facing. The Douglass-Rosenwald School would be a north-south design, which mandated two wings of classrooms on either end of the main building, with the center reserved for a combiled auditorium-cafeteria. Offices, restrooms, clothes closets and other needed rooms would be in the center as well.

Comparing the blueprint plan with the Douglass-Rosenwald School that was built, shows the exact nature of the construction. Because of the growing number of black children, the Douglass facility was also built as a 2-story structure, something Rosenwald scholars noted, happened occasionally, but not often. The school was ready for occupancy by the fall of 1929, and the move wasn't a minute too soon. School Board records show the black student population in Kingsport had more than quadrupled since 1920.

Please click here to see the data card file for the Douglass-Rosenwald School in Kingsport.

The Douglass Elementary-High School in Kingsport was one of 375 Rosenwald Schools eventually built in Tennessee. The Foundation made financial contributions in many other states, all of them south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Alabama - 405 schools
Florida - 127 schools
Georgia - 271 schools
Kentucky - 161 schools
Maryland - 155 schools
Mississippi - 639 schools
North Carolina - 819 schools
South Carolina - 503 schools
Tennessee - 375 schools
Virginia - 382 schools

Arkansas - 391 schools
Louisiana - 442 schools
Missouri - 5 schools
Oklahoma - 199 schools
Texas - 526 schools

"The Rosenwald Foundation did not provide ALL of the money to build the black schools," Dr. Stetten noted. "It wasn't even a majority of the funding. But it was that little extra push that was the difference in it happening, or not happening. There could have been the feeling by the local school board that if they didn't take the money, they could lose it. That's only speculation on my part."

Although Douglass-Rosenwald was of the eight-teacher type, there were also plans from one-room schools, to 8 or 10 rooms. The Rosenwald Foundation even built homes for teachers, and shops for schools it did not build.

Please click here to see the blueprint plans for all the Rosenwald Schools.


"It was the very strong combination of several beliefs that education was the way to help their children," Dr. Stetten says of the local African-American contribution to building the new school. "Research shows the black schools back then were very underfunded, and if parents wanted their children to succeed and get more education than they had, they would have contribute something financially themselves."

"It makes me sad to think that many people nowadays think public schools are failures, that they feel that our children are not learning as they should," Dr. Stetten says, "and then, there's the legacy of these Rosenwald Schools. Back then, these schools were viewed as the greatest hope for our children, which is a long-lost view of our history. The Rosenwald Schools were neat and tidy buildings, they were well-built, beautiful and well-designed. They showed care in their design, and that showed care for our children, that we cared enough to have them in good schools."

"I can just imagine the difference it must have made to the black school children and their families, when suddenly they were moved to a much nicer school. The learning level probably jumped tremendously."

Our research for this article shows that Douglass was one of four schools that received Rosenwald funds.


Another Rosenwald School was the all-black New Canton-Rosenwald School, in the New Canton Community in Eastern Hawkins County. The database indicates that school was built during the same years (1928-1929) as the Douglass School, and was a two-teacher design school.

Please click here to see the original data card file on the New Canton-Rosenwald School in Hawkins County.

Black folk in the New Canton community contributed $400 dollars for a new school to replace the one that was falling apart at the time, and the Rosenwald Foundation put up $750 dollars, which included a special aid contribution of $250 dollars. The remaining $1,700 dollars was funded by the Hawkins County School Board, and the New Canton School was built on 2 acres in the vicinity of the Allen's Chapel AME Church, at a total cost of $2,850 dollars.


A third area Rosenwald School was the all-black Prospect School in Scott Couunty, Virginia. Database information shows that the $2,300 dollar total cost, consisted of both the black community and several whites in Gate City contributed $600 dollars, Rosenwald funds gave $500 dollars, and the Scott County Board of Education made up the remaining $1,200 dollars.

Please click here to see the data file card on the Prospect-Rosenwald School in Gate City, Virginia.

The Prospect-Rosenwald School started out built to "Tuskegee standards" as a two-teacher type school built in 1923-1924, but was later expanded to the four-teacher type design, then five-teacher in 1925, with the funding as follows: black contributions $2,000 dollars... white contributions $300 dollars... Scott County Board of Education, $4,000 dollars, and Rosenwald funds, $1,100 dollars.


We also noted a contribution to the Langston School in Johnson City, for the construction of a shop building in 1929-1930, which stood separate from the main school building. The six-room shop's total cost of $16,500 dollars was funded with $14,100 dollars of Johnson City School Board funds, and $2,400 dollars in Rosenwald funds. Although Rosenwald funds helped build the shop building, no Rosenwald money was spent on the Langston School building itself; there Langston itself is not considered a Rosenwald School.

Please click here to see the data file card for the Rosenwald "Shop at Langston School" in Johnson City.

Probably the biggest surprise in our Rosenwald research is in Kingsport, at 1000 Summer Street.

The Lincoln School was also a Rosenwald School.

Was Lincoln one of Kingsport's all-black elementary schools?

The evidence would seem so, although early school records do not indicate this.

Both Lincoln and Jackson Schools were proposed and built in 1921, and Lincoln eventually moved into its current building (at right), at the same time (late 20's - early 30's) that a new all-black elementary-high school building was proposed to replace the old all-black Oklahoma Grove school building. The new "Oak Grove" school was never built, but both Lincoln-Rosenwald and Jackson Schools were, with Lincoln-Rosenwald constructed on 3 acres just off the old Bristol Highway (now Center Street). The Lincoln-Rosenwald School was built for a total cost of $13,392 dollars, of which Negroes (as referenced in the file) contributed $300 dollars, the Rosenwald Foundation $850 dollars, and the Kingsport Board of Education put up the remaining $12,542 dollars.

Please click here to see the data file card for the Lincoln (Lincoln-Rosenwald) School in Kingsport.

And therein, lies a lot of confusion.

To date, there is no evidence that black children ever attended Lincoln in the
1930's, even though evidence exists that African-Americans did contribute to its construction in the years 1930-1931.

"I have no idea why Lincoln, a white school, ended up with Rosenwald funds," says Mrs. Ellis. "Clearly, Rosenwald intended his funding to help build black schools, but it's hard to tell if Kingsport had any ulterior motives back then by getting Rosenwald money for Lincoln. After all, the Oklahoma Grove School still existed AFTER Lincoln received funding from the black community and Rosenwald. The name 'Abraham Lincoln' held a lot of clout and was much revered in the black community. It's only speculation on my part, but perhaps somebody on the Board of Education may have said, 'with Kingsport growing so fast (which it was doing rapidly in the 20's and 30's, here are some funds that we could use, so let's try and get them, even though they're intended for colored schools.' Again, that's only speculation on my part."

In 1951, the new Douglass School was built at 301 Louis Street in Riverview to house Kingsport's African-American elementary and high school students. That school was built entirely with funds from the Kingsport Board of Education, the Rosenwald Foundation having ended its philanthropy many years before.

It was then that the legacy of the Rosenwald Schools began to wane, not only in Kingsport, but in Tennessee and around the South. After Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, society slowly moved towards integration, and the all-black schools and the lessons of the past that led to the benevolence of the Rosenwald Foundation, began to fade into history.

After standing empty for many years, the majestic Douglass-Rosenwald School on East Sevier Avenue, after serving as headquarters and jail for the Kingsport Police Department, eventually met the same fate as many of its Rosenwald counterparts. The historic building was unceremoniously and quietly torn down, its valiant and courageous history reduced to a pile of dust and debris.

But is the legacy forgotten? Has it vanished, whisked away as dust in the winds of change?


As people learn more about the heritage of the Rosenwald Schools, your Douglass Alumni website has uncovered a small, but dedicated movement from state to state, to remember the schools funded by the Rosenwald Foundation, and honor them by reviving some of that new learning education enthusiam.

African-Americans entrusted the legacy of the Rosenwald Foundation to Fisk University in Nashville, where a database is kept of all of the former Rosenwald Schools.

To access the entire Rosenwald Foundation School Database, please click here.

"The Rosenwald Schools were very special institutions," says Dr. Stetten. "Unlike most schools that got primary attention from their local school boards, the Rosenwald Schools received special attention from the residents in the community. Each resident felt they had a personal stake in the construction of the school, and the level of education that was taught there. In fact, they did.. their hard-to-come-by dollars helped put up the building, and as a result, there was a huge sense of pride in what the community had accomplished."

"The Rosenwald Foundation provided the push that got it all started.. and kept the enthusiam level high."

"Alumni of the Douglass School in Kingsport, their descendants and the entire community of Kingsport have a very special reason to be proud of their former school."

"It was a Rosenwald School."


If only Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington knew the fruits of the seeds they sewed back in the 1920's.. you might find the two old friends strolling along the grounds at Tuskegee in the 21st century, their conversations modern in nature, but philosophies still old-school:

"I've been getting several emails about the renovation work at one of the schools in West Tennessee," Rosenwald might tell his friend. "Seems the EPA wants another land impact study. The foundation spends as much money trying to meet the environmental impact studies as in renovating the buildings themselves."

"I know what you mean," Washington might reply. "Those environmental people are blowing up my Blackberry, too. We can only do so much. I've got a meeting with the lawyers in Atlanta next week on that."

"No matter," Washington might say after some thought.. "It's important to get that school back up and running. One of the teachers texted me about a remarkable student in one of her classes at one of the schools. She says, he's writing a thesis on the molecular structure of the brain tissues in the central nervous system, and the lab in the school has not been renovated with the updated material from M-I-T."

"Would more money help?" Rosenwald might respond. "I've got some new funding sources on standby."

"It could," Washington muses. "After I went on Oprah a few weeks ago, she texted me with a pledge, then I got a call from the Gates wanting to help through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and PBS sent my systems analyst an email, wanting a video conference on contributions through the Annenberg Foundation. The Benton Foundation wants to sponsor a telecommunications link to all of our schools, so we can set the other school renovations."

As they strolled off into the sunset and into the history books, Washington is overheard to mutter..

"So many kids.. so little time."


This article is dedicated to the memory of all Rosenwald teachers at the Douglass-Rosenwald School in Kingsport; and "Mama Jill" Ellis and Alene Sneed, both Douglass Elementary teachers in the "new" Douglass building built in 1951. Mrs. Ellis, who knew the Douglass link to the Rosenwald Foundation, prodded me into finding the documentation, and encouraged the historical referencing of the facts in the story, and...


...Alene Sneed, who, herself, often spoke of the benefits of the Rosenwald influence in the former black schools. As a child growing up in the 1930's, she attended, and graduated from, the Farmington-Rosenwald School in Marshall County, Tennessee, another school partially funded by the Rosenwald Foundation.

---Calvin Sneed