ROANOKE RAPIDS — A little white clapboard schoolhouse sits alongside a quiet highway in rural Halifax County. On the grounds of the 4-H Rural Life Center, 13763 North Carolina Highway 903, the Allen Grove Rosenwald School is a reminder of days when African-American residents fought for the right to be educated.
It is one of 5,357 Rosenwald Schools built from the efforts of a son of a German-Jewish immigrant, a black educator and local residents who wanted to learn how to read and write — and therefore, vote.
Joe Long, director of the 4-H Center, takes a keen interest in Rosenwald Schools. He wrote a paper about them for his master’s degree thesis.
“Once you get into it, you find there’s a lot of stuff there,” he said. “They’re all jewels.”
The Allen Grove Rosenwald School was built by Cary Pittman, a black contractor who is credited with building at least 20 Rosenwald Schools. Its first teacher and principal was Leanna Bell Pittman. Both were born in January 1880. They weren’t related.
The school was constructed for two teachers and was originally sited in the Allen Grove community on Highway 561. It cost $1,000 to build and construction was completed in 1922. It was moved to the 4-H Center and rededicated there in 1996.
Although the school was built with a movable partition down the middle, it was operated as one big room with each grade level sitting in its own row. Long said the school, as he recalled, offered education up to eighth grade.
“There are plenty of people still around who went to Rosenwald Schools, probably even that one,” Long said. He added North Carolina had more Rosenwald Schools than any other state, and Halifax had more of these schools than any other county.
The school represented all that black people wished for when it came to education, according to Long.
“If you don’t know where you came from, you certainly don’t know where you’re going,” he said. “That’s why these schools were so important.”
How Rosenwald Schools came about is fascinating, according to Long. In the 1910s, the sad state of education among African-Americans in the rural south came to the attention of Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, moving him so much he began a project to develop schools. He established the Julius Rosenwald Fund to provide for architectural plans and matching grants that helped build more than 5,300 schools from Maryland to Texas between the late 1910s and 1932.
Rosenwald’s background is well documented in the Julius Rosenwald Papers collection, stored at the University of Chicago Library. He was president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. As part of that organization, he developed the concept of the mail-order catalog for which the Sears catalog became famous. As a philanthropist, Rosenwald donated $1,000 grants to the first 100 counties to hire County Extension Agents, helping the U.S. Department of Agriculture launch a program still shaping rural America. He was the principal founder and backer for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, to which he gave more than $5 million and served as President from 1927 to 1932. Rosenwald also helped build almost two dozen black YMCAs to provide lodging and social services in America’s largest cities.
According to the library, Rosenwald summarized his philosophy of philanthropy quite simply: “What I want to do is try and cure the things that seem wrong.” He set out on this task with wealth derived from his leadership of Sears, Roebuck & Company, a strong social conscience, and the practical zeal and organizing ability of an eminently successful American businessman, according to his bio published by the libary.
“Disenfranchisement” was a curse in the American South at the turn of the 20th century. Before the Civil War, it was illegal to teach black slaves to read and write. After the Civil War, more laws were constructed to block black men from voting. In 1900, the North Carolina legislature set in place a law barring people who couldn’t read and write from voting in elections. A literacy test was established that proved the ability to comprehend written material. By 1915, public schools in North Carolina spent $7.40 per white pupil but only $2.30 per black pupil, compared with the U.S. average of nearly $30 per student, according to historysouth.org.
In 1910, ex-slave Booker T. Washington headed the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he had developed into a major college serving the black community. In 1911, he met Rosenwald, and urged him to become a trustee of the institute, according to the University of Chicago Library. Washington had already begun a program to build black schools in the area surrounding Tuskegee, but he needed more support, and that came from Rosenwald, according to Long. The library quotes Rosenwald as saying while white colleges might expect continually growing support, “(so) very few persons are interested in the education of the Negro that I have deemed it wiser to concentrate my efforts in that direction.”
Together, Rosenwald and Washington hammered out an early example of the matching grant. If a rural black community could pull together a contribution, and if the local school board would agree to operate the facility, Rosenwald would contribute much of the cash for construction. Rosenwald Schools would become community enterprises, although few would carry the name “Rosenwald.”
Booker T. Washington died in November 1915 but the program continued. Management of the school-building project was moved from the Tuskegee Institute to the Rosenwald Fund in 1920.
The Rosenwald Schools came in all sizes, from one-teacher school houses to larger facilities offering kindergarten through high school education. They were built not only as centers for education, but also as a place where communities could meet. Their earliest designs were created by professors at the Tuskegee Institute, and later plans were designed by Director S.L. Smith in 1920, director of the Rosenwald Foundation office in Nashville. Smith included plans for privies, workshops and teacher cottages.
When the project was built-out in 1932, there were 5,357 school buildings, teacher homes and vocational buildings in 883 counties throughout 15 Southern states. North Carolina had the largest number of Rosenwald Schools, 813 by the program’s conclusion, according to the state historical website.
Halifax County had more Rosenwald schools — 46 — than any other county in the state, according to Long. Most were built in the 1920s. In Northampton County, there were 21 Rosenwald Schools, seven of which were established in 1918 or 1919.
Administrators tried to gear curriculum around what the local economy needed. Some focused on agricultural subjects; some concentrated on industrial skills.
The Allen Grove school closed in the mid 1950s. Until it was moved to the 4-H center, it remained on its original site, on a farm owned by a family named Twisdale. They used it for storage after the school closed, according to Long.
In the 1960s, many of the schools were closed down as school districts consolidated, according to Long. Many of the schools were placed on the National Trust for Historic Places’s endangered list, Long said, but most of them no longer exist as viable structures.
The Allen Grove Rosenwald School remains a centerpiece for education, Long said.
“We use it as a classroom for our camp” at the 4-H Rural Life Center, he said. “It’s still being used by young people who get a chance to experience history.”
In 2002, the National Trust named all the South’s Rosenwald Schools to its Eleven Most Endangered list, drawing national attention to the preservation project. None of the Rosenwald Schools in Halifax or Northampton counties are currently on the list of National Register of Historic Places, but three are on the study list: Allen Grove Rosenwald School plus Jonesboro School near Seaboard and Potecasi School in Northampton County.
As of 2012, 25 Rosenwald Schools in North Carolina were registered on the National Register of Historic Places — including two schools in Warren County, the Liberia Rosenwald School near Warrenton, listed May 18, 2005, and the Warren County Training School in Wise, listed March 19, 2006.
In order for the Allen Grove or any other school on the study list to be put on the National Registry, a detailed and precise nomination must be written and submitted, according to Claudia Brown of the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office.
“To my knowledge, no one is writing a nomination for it,” she said.
The nominated schools need also to be in good repair, Long said. Allen Grove fits the bill.
“Ours is in pretty decent shape,” he said. “We’ve done what needed to be done with it.”
The Rosenwald Schools Initiative is highlighted on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website — preservationnation.org. Information about how people can get involved in putting a structure on the National Register of Historic Places may be found on that website.
The Franklin Library at Fisk University is home to the archives of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, with digital card files on almost every Rosenwald School constructed. (For more information, visit rosenwald.fisk.edu).
Back when the Allen Grove Rosenwald School was in its heyday, kids wanted to go to school.
“They knew the power of knowledge,” Long said. “That’s what Rosenwald stood for.”
Because they had to work for it, these schools meant a lot to their communities, he added. Those who couldn’t contribute money for the Allen Grove school took builder Pittman whatever they had, be it eggs, pigs or peaches.
“It was a well-thought-through, well-laid-out program,” Long said. “It certainly showed that people valued education, and it was a right that people wanted to experience.”
The Department of Cultural Resources recently commemorated the legacy of the Rosenwald Schools at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro.
“Anyone with an interest in our State’s African-American history should seize this opportunity to learn about the Rosenwald Schools,” said North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory in a press release. “Their creation was a testament to the power of education, and there is no better way to honor Black History Month than by taking advantage of one of the Department of Cultural Resources’ events.”
In addition, a conference focusing on Rosenwald Schools is being planned in Durham June 17-19, 2015.
“We are planning to bring in more than 500 people from all over the South,” said Tracy Hayes, project manager for the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Rosenwald Schools National Treasure.
She speaks with passion about these schools.
“They are a hidden treasure, and a huge part of our national history,” she said. “In 2002, we started making a concerted effort, we and all our allies out there, to save them.”
Grants have been awarded by this organization toward preserving North Carolina Rosenwald Schools, including the Warren County Training Center near Wise.