Hale County, Ala., has a storied place in American arts and letters. The legendary book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with prose by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans, documented the lives of three impoverished sharecropping families in Hale County in 1936. William Christenberry, born in Hale County the year Agee and Evans lived there, spent a career photographing how time was transforming the southern landscape. Architects Samuel Mockbee and D. K. Ruth established Rural Studio in Hale County in 1993. Believing “everyone, both rich and poor, deserves the benefit of good design,” the Auburn University program has built hundreds of projects using design to create simple and efficient beauty at very low cost.
Predating each of these is Hale County’s Emory School. Constructed around 1915 and in use as a schoolhouse for Black children until 1962, the modest, white clapboard structure is likely the oldest surviving Rosenwald school. One of the most dramatic—and effective— philanthropic initiatives the country has ever seen, the Rosenwald schools program was created by Tuskegee Institute principal Booker T. Washington and Sears, Roebuck & Co. president Julius Rosenwald. From 1912 to 1932, this collaboration built 4,977 schools for Black children across 15 southern and border states. One final school was added in 1937. Hundreds of thousands of students walked through the doorways of Rosenwald schools.
The Emory School rises on small brick piers, which enable moisture and temperature control as air circulates below the building. Inside, cloakrooms served to keep muddy outer garments separate from learning spaces. Large double-hung windows let in lots of light, since most Rosenwald schools initially lacked electricity. The windows also provided ventilation during warmer months. In colder months, potbelly stoves heated the rooms. These vented through brick chimneys.
In addition to a larger main classroom, a smaller room at the rear was for industrial education, such as agriculture and trade skills for boys, as well as home economics and domestic skills for girls. These spaces were separated by a movable partition— usually a series of doors—that could be retracted so the full space could be used as a community center outside classroom hours. Each of these design features was laid out by a team of Tuskegee architects led by Robert Robinson Taylor, the first accredited Black architect.
Julius Rosenwald led Sears, Roebuck & Co. from 1908 until his death in 1932. He helped turn Sears into the world’s largest retailer, and he became one of the earliest and greatest philanthropists in American history. His cause was what would later become known as civil rights. Booker T. Washington was one of the most prominent Black voices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born into slavery, he became an educator and was the founding principal of Tuskegee Institute. He led the college for more than 30 years.
Rosenwald and Washington met in 1911. At that time, Black public schools in the South were usually in terrible facilities with outdated materials and a tiny fraction of the funding provided for educating white children. Many communities did not even have public schools for Black students. Rosenwald and Washington attacked this education challenge with originality and sophistication and created the program that became known as Rosenwald schools.
I first heard of Rosenwald schools from Jeanne Cyriaque, a preservationist who had dedicated her career to saving these historic structures. The story shocked me. How could I have never heard of Rosenwald schools? I am a fifth-generation Jewish Georgian, and I have spent my life working on progressive civic causes. Some of the pillars of this story—Jewish, southern, progressive—are the pillars of my life.
I quickly found a few books on Rosenwald schools but no comprehensive photographic account. I set out to create exactly that. Of the original 4,978 Rosenwald schools, about 500 survive. Over three and a half years, I drove 25,000 miles and photographed 105 schools in all 15 program states. This work includes interiors and exteriors, schools restored and yet-to-be restored, and portraits of people with compelling connections to these schools. Narratives accompany each photograph, telling the stories of Rosenwald schools’ connections to the Trail of Tears, the Great Migration, the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown vs. Board of Education, embezzlement, murder, and more. The book recording this work was recently published as A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America (University of Georgia Press). The accompanying exhibition will premiere this spring at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The Rosenwald schools program changed America. Between World War I and World War II, the persistent Black-white education gap that had plagued the South narrowed significantly. Economists at the Federal Reserve would later conclude that Rosenwald schools were the most significant factor in that achievement.
Further, Rosenwald schools would be a meaningful force in helping give rise to the civil rights movement as many students went on to be the leaders and foot soldiers of the movement. Medgar Evers, Maya Angelou, and U.S. Representative John Lewis were among those who attended Rosenwald schools. As Lewis, who passed away in July 2020, wrote in a foreword to the book, “I was curious. I was hungry to learn. I was absolutely committed to giving my all in the classroom. My parents would describe education in almost mythical terms, that it offered the keys to the kingdom of America, the keys to a better life and to opportunity.
One of the core design principles of Rosenwald schools was that they were to be modest. Such humility was in part to control costs and in part to avoid provoking a backlash, specifically arson, from the local white citizenry. But despite being offered architectural plans and design guidelines, Black communities often adjusted designs in an expression of agency.
The Pleasant Plains School displays this dynamic. The community wanted a cupola, and they built a cupola. But cupolas were anathema to Fletcher Dresslar, a professor of architecture at George Peabody College in Nashville, who was hired by the Rosenwald Fund in 1919 to review the school building program. Dresslar felt strongly that civic institutions should have an architectural idiom distinct from that of churches to honor the separation of church and state. When he came across a cupola on a schoolhouse, Dresslar railed that such niceties needed to be firmly prohibited on future schoolhouses, as “these are remnants of church architecture!”
In 1920, administration of the Rosenwald schools program moved from Tuskegee to the new Rosenwald Fund office in Nashville under the direction of Samuel Smith, who had been a student of Fletcher Dresslar. Smith and Dresslar developed an expansive new set of plans for Rosenwald schools. Building on the principles laid out by Tuskegee architects, yet integrating new thinking on schoolhouse design, the Rosenwald Fund started issuing a series of designs in four-page pamphlets. Full sets of plans were available upon request at no charge. These proved to be in great demand and were used across the region, frequently without Rosenwald funding, for the construction of both Black and white schools. These designs marked a shift in the program from building better schools to building model schools.
In working through how to tell this story visually, I initially focused on schoolhouse exteriors. Over two decades, the program advanced from one-teacher, two-teacher, and three-teacher wooden structures to brick buildings of one, two, and three stories. As I visited more schools, I ventured inside and marveled at how they were being used today. While a handful remain active schools, most were outgrown as educational facilities decades ago. Today, these former schoolhouses are community centers, church halls, daycare centers, apartments, and private homes. Many, though, remain unrestored, and at several sites I came across piles of rubble so recent they were surrounded by emergency fencing or yellow caution tape. I hope my photographs will bring new urgency to the cause of preservation.
But by far the most emotionally rewarding part of my experience was meeting people who attended these schools, taught in these schools, and are focused on saving these schools. I strove to capture this remarkable part of the story through portraits. One of the stories I found most inspiring is that of Elroy and Sophia Williams. The portrait that opens the book shows them inside the Hopewell School, then undergoing renovation, in Bastrop County, Texas. They are holding an enormous photograph in a beautifully ornate, gilt frame. More than a century old, it portrays Sophia’s grandparents—Sophia and Martin McDonald—youthful and elegantly dressed.
Sophia Williams’ grandparents were both born into slavery. Upon emancipation, Martin McDonald started raising farm animals, bought some land, and eventually accumulated 1,200 acres. When the Rosenwald schools program came to Bastrop County in 1919, the family donated land for the school. The first teacher was Sophia Williams’ mother; Sophia was one of the first students. Elroy attended a different Rosenwald school in Bastrop County. Elroy and Sophia both went on to college, returned to Bastrop County as teachers, and have been leading the effort to preserve the Hopewell School as a community center: students becoming teachers becoming the keepers of the flame of history.
Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington reached across divides of race, religion, and region, and they changed America. To me, the heart of this story speaks to each of us: Individual actions matter; you can make the world a more just place. Of all the lessons taught to us by Congressman John Lewis, to me his most powerful call was this: “Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” May we all continue to make #GoodTrouble.
A Better Life for Their Children was partially funded through a sponsorship from the Architects Foundation. As the philanthropic partner of The American Institute of Architects, the Architects Foundation attracts, inspires, and invests in a next-generation design community through scholarships and exhibitions. Donate here.