by Larry Chowning
Following the Civil War the United States Congress passed laws that required southern states to address suffrage for blacks and required free public schools for blacks.
The Virginia General Assembly in 1871 passed Article VIII Section 3 of the State Constitution, which states, “The General Assembly shall provide . . . a uniform system of public free schools for all children—white and black—in all counties of the state by 1876.”
Until 1969, most public elementary and high schools in Virginia were segregated. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed racial segregation and brought integration of the schools, but prior to the Civil Rights Act school standards of school buildings and the quality of education for whites was higher than for blacks.
In 1912 noted African-American educator Booker T. Washington brought this to the attention of Julius Rosenwald, an owner of Sears and Roebuck. Washington persuaded Rosenwald to provide funding to build six small African American schools in Alabama, which were opened in 1913 and 1914.
After realizing the success of these schools, Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 and from then until 1948 spent $70 million on public education, colleges and universities, museums, Jewish charities and African-American institutions.
Rosenwald funds were used to build some 5,000 African-American schools in five states; 308 of those schools were built in Virginia; and several in local counties.
One of the most notable school buildings is the Julius Rosenwald High School near Reedville. It was originally known as Northumberland County Training School and opened in 1917. Local African-Americans raised more than $7,000 to build the school and matching funds from the Rosenwald Fund enabled the school to be finished.
In 1931, to honor Rosenwald’s contribution, the school was renamed Julius Rosenwald High School. It closed in 1958. In 2000, a Virginia Department of Historic Resources sign was placed along the roadside in front of the old school building. Supporters of the school building celebrated its 100th year anniversary in 2017 and the Julius Rosenwald School Foundation of Northumberland County is raising funds to renovate the old building.
Rosenwald funds helped to build three schools in Middlesex County. Union Shiloh School at Laneview is a four-room school that was built in 1923 and is still standing. The building is located next to Union Shiloh Baptist Church. Many of the early schools for blacks were built near churches because black church groups and organizations encouraged the education of African-American children.
Union Shiloh closed in 1962 when black elementary schools in Middlesex were consolidated. The building is owned and used today by Union Shiloh Baptist Church for church, community and social functions.
Mathews County has the Antioch Rosenwald School at Susan. The building is used as a parsonage and a museum of local African-American history. The school building is at 110 Antioch Road and is open to the public on Saturdays.
Antioch was built in 1927 as a two teacher/classroom school and closed in 1948. When the school closed students consolidated with the all-black Thomas Hunter School near Mathews Court House. The county had two other Rosenwald-funded schools that are no longer standing.
Gloucester had seven schools constructed in the county with Rosenwald funds. The only one still standing is Woodville School at White Marsh built in 1924. The school was built with classrooms for two teachers, an industrial room on the front of the building, and two outside privies to the side. In 2001, the school was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In order to ensure that this historic asset remained standing, the Gloucester County Economic Development Authority acquired Woodville School in 2012. The T.C. Walker and Woodville/Rosenwald School Foundation was organized in 2012 with the mission “to receive, maintain and administer assets in perpetuity explosively for charitable and educational purposes relating to the African-American experience, including but not limited to the legacy of Woodville School and Rosenwald schools.”
Rosenwald schools speak to the economic and political struggle of African-American parents and educators who were charged with the mission of educating their children. Rosenwald school buildings are a silent witness to generations of African-Americans who were able to better their lives through the education they received at these early schools.
Today, the Rosenwald school buildings still standing are considered community treasures and considered significant enough that efforts are under way to preserve them.
Julius Rosenwald’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany who came to America in the mid-1800s and started a clothing business in Springfield, Illinois.
Julius was born in 1862 and at the age of 16, Rosenwald was apprenticed by his parents to his uncles in New York to learn the clothing trade. There he learned the business and eventually became part owner of Sears, Roebuck & Company.
Around 1912 he established communication with renowned African-American educator Booker T. (Taliaferro) Washington, who encouraged Rosenwald to give funds to address the poor state of African-American education in the South. Over time he accumulated a fortune and gave away over $70 million to philanthropic causes.
Washington died in 1915 but Rosenwald got the message. In 1917, he established the Rosenwald Fund and contributed more than $4 million in matching funds toward the construction of more than 5,000 schools, education shop buildings and teacher homes in the South. These schools became informally known as “Rosenwald Schools.”
At that time, the counties in Tidewater Virginia had extremely poor school facilities. Many African-Americans were going to school in one-room log buildings that had been built during Reconstruction. The Rosenwald Fund addressed the problem by supporting the construction of over a dozen school buildings in the area.
Time has taken most of those old school buildings away but there are a few still standing as a reminder of the educational struggle and journey of local African-Americans following the Civil War.