- Associated Press - Sunday, March 16, 2014

ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. (AP) - 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.”

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