A traveling exhibit now in Charlotte tells the story of the Rosenwald Schools
Do you know the history of Rosenwald Schools? Are you aware of their impact on Black education in the South? If you answered no to both of these questions, you’re not alone. Award-winning photographer and author Andrew Feiler went on the same learning journey, and now he’s sharing what he found in a new exhibit at the Charlotte Museum of History.
In 2015, Feiler published his first book, "Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color: The Past, Present, and Future of One Historically Black College."
"My first book is a portrait of an abandoned college campus," Feiler said. "There’s dissonance (in the book) where I talk about how education is the backbone to the American Dream and the on-ramp of the American middle class. That college happened to be a historically Black college."
After publishing his book, he met with someone from the Georgia Historic Preservation Office for lunch. They wondered if, because of Feiler’s previous work, he might be interested in Rosenwald Schools.
Feiler is a fifth-generation Georgian Jewish man who is deeply immersed in political and civic engagement in the Atlanta community. Despite this, it wasn't until that lunch meeting that he learned about Rosenwald Schools.
Rosenwald Schools started after Julius Rosenwald met Tuskegee Institute founder and progressive reformer Booker T. Washington in Chicago in 1911. Rosenwald was a Jewish philanthropist and president of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. department store.
As a philanthropist, Rosenwald used his money toward progressive projects and causes. One of those causes was Black Southern education — something that he and Washington had in common.
In 1912, Rosenwald gave a grant to the Tuskegee Institute so it could build six African American schools. Throughout the years, Rosenwald continued to provide money to the institute, and more schools were built. When Washington died in 1915, Rosenwald chose to manage the fund without the Tuskegee Institute and turned it into an independent foundation. He eventually created the Rosenwald Fund in 1917, and through that effort, 4,978 schools were built for African American children.
"I've have been a progressive activist my entire life,” Feiler said. “This story is the pillar of my life. How could I never have heard about Rosenwald Schools?”
After learning about Rosenwald Schools, Feiler Googled as much information as he could about the topic.
"I found that there were a number of books on the topic, but there wasn't a comprehensive photographic account to the program,” Feiler said. “So, I set to do exactly that.”
After driving 25,000 miles, visiting 15 states, and taking photos of 105 surviving schools, Feiler finished and published his book "A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America," after three and a half years of work.
In addition to "A Better Life for Their Children" being a book, it's a traveling photography exhibit as well — and it arrived at the Charlotte Museum of History on Feb. 5. It’ll be there until June 18.
The exhibit provides black and white photos with interviews from former Rosenwald students, teachers and community leaders.
Of the original 4,978 schools, only 500 survived, and only half were restored. The museum has the exhibit as part of its Save Siloam School Project to preserve one of Charlotte's last standing Rosenwald schools. North Carolina had the largest number of Rosenwald Schools of any state, with 787 built.
Fannie Flono, a Charlotte Museum of History trustee and chair of the Save Siloam School Project, has grown up hearing stories about Rosenwald schools, especially from her cousin Georgia Collier Scott.
Scott lived to be 102, and for many years she was trying to restore her school, Hopewell Rosenwald School in Clarks Hill, South Carolina. Flono said Scott would often tell her how being in a Rosenwald school gave her a better learning experience compared to the previous school she went to, praising everything from the books to the teachers to the large windows.
"People who talk about the Rosenwald School experience, they often talk about the camaraderie that came from going to these schools,” Flono said. “The parents and the community valued sending their kids to a school that provided a better educational opportunity, better books, better teachers and better facilities, that created an atmosphere where people could thrive and achieve.”
Flono said that her cousin attributes many of her achievements to going to a Rosenwald School, including continuing her education by receiving her bachelor’s from Benedict College and her master’s at South Carolina State College.
Scott is not the only person who attributes Rosenwald Schools to their success. John Lewis, the civil rights activist and longtime member of Congress who died in 2020, also attributed his success to them. Feiler interviewed Lewis about the schools in 2019.
"I met with Congressman Lewis in his office on Oct. 29, 2019,” Feiler said. “We sat at the round table of his office. His jacket was drooped behind his chair. On the jacket, there was a cancer awareness ribbon on his lapel. He asked, 'Should I take this off?' I said, ‘No, congressman, I want the authentic you. You leave it on.’
“It was exactly two months later, Dec. 29, 2019, that Congressman Lewis went public with his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. And sadly, his contribution of the introduction (of the book) was one of his last public acts.”
Lewis was one of eight sponsors of a House bill that will create a national park to preserve Rosenwald Schools.
"Even though Rosenwald Schools in themselves didn't solve the problem of educational inequities, they were a big step forward in helping kids feel that they were getting a better education and pushing them to achieve the highest level of their abilities,” Flono said.
People can see the exhibit on Saturdays at the Charlotte Museum of History. Additionally, on Feb. 26, people can see the exhibit for free as part of the annual African American Heritage Festival.