north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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      Beginning in 1912, Sears and Roebuck president and Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, in collaboration with Booker T. Washington, helped to bolster a rural school building program for Alabama’s African American communities through an initiative that the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) had begun to implement. Proving very successful and essential in improving the quality of education for African American children in a racially segregated South, the Institute’s initiative, supported by challenge grants using funds donated by Rosenwald quickly spread to neighboring Southern states by 1914-1915, including to North Carolina, where the Rosenwald Fund ultimately helped to build 817 buildings in ninety-three of the state’s one hundred counties.

      The collaborative rural school building effort eventually became the Rosenwald Fund’s School Building Program, administered by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. By 1928 one in every five rural schools in the South was a Rosenwald school; the schools housed one-third of the region’s rural black schoolchildren and teachers. At the program’s conclusion in 1932, it had produced 4,977 schools, 217 teacher’s homes, and 163 shop buildings that served 663,625 students in 15 states. African American communities raised more than $4.7 million for the construction of these educational buildings, while Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund contributed more than $4.3 million . Financial aid from the Rosenwald Fund often subsidized only 15-20% of a building’s total cost. To cover the balance, monies from local and state education departments, as well as white communities (a requirement of aid from the Fund) were used.

      During the 1914-1915 academic year, North Carolina received funding for its first Rosenwald schools, although the Rosenwald Fund’s School Building Program did not begin until the nonprofit was incorporated in 1917. Using Tuskegee’s architectural plans for school houses and Alabama as a model, the state’s first Rosenwald School was the Warren Grove School in Chowan County, a two-teacher plan built for a total cost of $1,622. It was completed on October 8, 1915. The black community had contributed $486, the white community and the school system furnished $836, and Julius Rosenwald himself had contributed $300, the maximum amount initially allocated for any schoolhouse.

      During the 1914-1915 academic year, North Carolina disbursed $1,865 in Rosenwald funds that had been appropriated by Tuskegee to subsidize seven buildings. The six schools in addition to the Warren Grove School were the Florence School, a two-teacher plan in Guilford County; the Messic School, a two-teacher plan in Pamlico County; the Hobbsville School, a one-teacher plan; the Reynoldson School, a three-teacher plan in Gates County; the Old Fort School, a two-teacher plan in McDowell County; and the Mt. Olive School, a four-teacher plan in Columbus County. The Beaver Dam School in Pitt County was selected to receive funding but was not built, and instead its $200 appropriation was put towards construction of the Reynoldson School.

      In 1921, the Division of Negro Education was formally created as a separate agency within North Carolina’s State Department of Public Instruction. Directed by Nathan Carter Newbold, who was white, the office administered North Carolina’s Rosenwald School Building Program, supervised black state colleges, oversaw black high schools and elementary schools, and eventually managed the state’s Jeanes program. The same year the Division was created, Newbold replaced previous assistants with William Frontis Credle, who was white, and George Edward Davis, who was black, who jointly and exclusively worked with Rosenwald officials, local officials, and school boards to support and launch grassroots campaigns for the Rosenwald Fund’s School Building Program throughout rural North Carolina.

      In North Carolina, as well as other southern states that received school building aid from the Rosenwald Fund, the Rosenwald School Building Program distributed matching, or challenge, grants. The grants had stipulations: they required both local tax dollars and community contributions. Excluding the largest Rosenwald-funded schools at the end of the school building program, it was local African Americans who raised the majority amount of money for Rosenwald school construction throughout North Carolina, “far in excess of the Fund grants.”

      Local school boards, county commissions, and the North Carolina State Department of Education, who all sought Rosenwald grants for school construction, “did not necessarily concur with the visions of black self-help and advancement that moved Washington and Rosenwald. They were generally more interested in lessening their share of education costs for African American children and in keeping a sufficiently satisfied black workforce trained in domestic care, mechanics, and agriculture down on the farm.” Historian Thomas W. Hanchett suggests that it was Davis, through his tireless fundraising at the local level, who generated the necessary support for Rosenwald schools across North Carolina’s 500-mile length, traversing the state by automobile, absent from his home sometimes for weeks at a time.

      Rosenwald schools throughout the state were community centers for rural African Americans. Davis wrote, “Building good Rosenwald schools has helped to stabilize industrial and social conditions by encouraging colored people to own and build their homes near such schools.” One of the highlights in the final years of North Carolina’s Rosenwald School Building Program was the 1928 dedication of the Method, or Berry O’Kelly School, the 4,000th Rosenwald school, which was attended by Julius Rosenwald. The two-story, eleven-teacher floor plan, located on Raleigh’s western outskirts, was built at a total cost of $53,000 and typified the last Rosenwald school buildings constructed in the state: large, often multiple-story masonry schools in more densely populated areas, including industrial, vocational, and high schools, exemplified the Rosenwald Fund’s final school building initiative, the “Southern School Program.”

      By 1932, when the program was discontinued, black residents of North Carolina had contributed more than $666,000 toward the 817 new Rosenwald buildings. The contributions, spurred by the grassroots fundraising efforts of Davis and the matching funds contributed by the Rosenwald Fund, helped to increase public support and local and state accountability and oversight of African American schools in North Carolina. The Rosenwald Fund’s School Building Program also facilitated an unparalleled level of interracial cooperation and allowed more children to receive a markedly better education in modern school buildings that were better equipped, designed, and constructed than the structures they replaced, if a school building had previously existed at all.


References:
“Rosenwald Schools in North Carolina,” National Register of Historic Places, Multiple Property Documentation Form, prepared by Kyle Obenauer with Claudia Brown: https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/NC04.pdf
Map of North Carolina’s Rosenwald Schools, with detailed information and links: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=e1496b7c0fe9493aaceec56feedda53a
Peter M. Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (2006)
Thomas W. Hanchett, “The Rosenwald Schools and Black Education in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (October 1988): 387-444
Mary S. Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South (2006)
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north carolina highway historical marker program


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