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Article Social Action Shabbaton - Julius Rosenwald Schools

Social Action at TI

By Claudine Schweber
January 2011 Menroah Newsletter

A Rosenwald School in Montgomery Alabama

Martin Luthor King Shabbaton

Each year we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and his commitment to improving the welfare of others by hosting a Shabbat service and afternoon panel that reflects those ideals.

This year, at the Shabbaton on January 15, we honor the memory of TI member and civil rights activist Marvin Caplan, by presenting a lesser known story of Jewish involvement with the African-American community: Julius Rosenwald and the Jewish Commitment to African-American Education.

Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), part owner and president of Sears Roebuck & Co, funded several thousand schools for African-American children in the South in the early 20th century. One report estimated that from l917-1932 more than 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built in fifteen states!

The Rosenwald story will be the subject of the drash by Stephanie Deutsch who is writing a book about the strong friendship of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald served on the Board of the Tuskegee Institute as well as contributed to the school.

In the afternoon, the panel will be led by film maker Aviva Kempner (Partisans of Vilna, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg) who is working on a movie about Rosenwald and this amazing story.

Rosenwald Schools

'During the 1920's one in five African-American schools in the rural South was a Rosenwald school. These were mostly one-room or two-room buildings. The Rosenwald Fund usually donated about $600 per school. The local African-American community raised additional funds, secured land, provided construction labor, and bought supplies, fuel, and, sometimes, buses. The Fund also required the local government to contribute to the building projects and the state to maintain the new schools.

Some Rosenwald schools replaced freedmen's schools built for ex-slaves during Reconstruction. Elsewhere, Rosenwald schools were the first educational institutions open to blacks. A 1934 report on African-American education in Texas noted, "Every Negro school visited... except the Rosenwald schools, was housed in crude, unpainted box shacks with no foundation... no desks, blackboard, no window shades, no library and no equipment."

Rosenwald schools were a sign of progress and a source of pride in African-American communities. Most
Rosenwald schools have been torn down, but a few still stand. In some states, historic preservation efforts are under way to recognize, restore, and save the old schools. One of the remaining schools is Highland Park High School in Prince George's County, Maryland, built in l928.

The son of German Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald believed that Jews had a special understanding of the plight of African-Americans. He wrote that "The horrors that are due to race prejudice
come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer."