- - Friday, March 23, 2012

By Stephanie Deutsch
Northwestern University Press, $24.95, 208 pages

Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. first met in 1911. The occasion of that meeting and all that would follow from it is the subject of Stephanie Deutsch’s engaging and instructive “You Need a Schoolhouse.”

The author builds her book by first offering biographical information about the principles. For Booker T. Washington, she lets what he wrote in his autobiography “Up From Slavery” set the stage:

“I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. … My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings. This was so, however, not because my owners were especially cruel, for they were not, as compared with many others. I was born in a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square. In this cabin I lived with my mother and a brother and sister till after the Civil War when we all were declared free.”

Julius Rosenwald was the son of German immigrants who arrived in this country in 1854, two years before Booker T. Washington was born. His father, Samuel, started out as a peddler in Baltimore, selling dry goods - clothing and groceries. By the time Julius was born, the family had moved to Springfield, Ill., where they were “comfortably” settled. When Julius was 16, he traveled to New York to visit his uncles Julius and Edward Hammerslough, “who were manufacturing clothing in New York City as well as selling it retail, and when they offered Julius the opportunity to come and learn from them, he took it.”

On the surface, no two men could have been more different. Yet their partnership, one that eventually brought thousands of modern schoolhouses to black communities in the rural South is the stuff of history. But what animates this volume is something more than history. The spirit of this book, one that lends vitality to the story it tells, derives in part from the personal connection Mrs. Deutsch has to the subject. Julius Rosenwald was her husband’s great-grandfather and her interest in her spouse’s famous forbear inevitably led the author to the Washington-Rosenwald collaboration. And it led Mrs. Deutsch to the following questions:

“Why, I asked myself, was Washington’s name so revered that it was on hundreds of schools all over the country, and yet his legacy today obscure enough that I, not to mention my children and others of their generation, knew little about him? What, I wondered, was the relationship between him and Rosenwald really like? Why had these two men from such different backgrounds been able to work together so effectively?”

And answer these questions, she does. At the time of their meeting, Washington was 56. Though widely known and respected, the road to fame for him was not always a smooth one. He had dined with President Theodore Roosevelt and drunk tea with Queen Victoria, but he had also been assaulted on a street in New York City in a random crime that took its toll.

Moreover, as Mrs. Deutsch writes, “Washington has long been out of fashion, often dismissed as servile, an Uncle Tom unable or unwilling to take the stands that would have led more directly to significant change for black Americans. His name is remembered, yet his importance is downplayed in history coursesmore focused on the activist tradition, and his reputation overshadowed by those of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois.”

Yet she understands the blazing source of his legacy, and that is as an educator. The story behind the title of the book speaks for itself. “Every Sunday evening at Tuskegee, students and faculty attended a chapel service where when [Washington] was on the campus [he] did his own style of preaching. … ‘You need a schoolhouse,’ he said in one talk. You cannot teach school in log cabins without doors, windows, lights, floor or apparatus. You need a schoolhouse and if you are in earnest, the people will help you.”

At 51 when they met, Rosenwald, was one of the people who would help. In this well-researched and thoughtful book, Mrs. Deutsch offers a vivid account of race relations, business innovation and state of education for all in the early years of the last century. Spanning war and Depression, pushing back against racism and segregation, this story of the generosity of a singular philanthropist and a visionary educator is one worth knowing.

“When the Rosenwald program ended in 1932, it had built 4,977 schools, 217 homes for teachers (‘teacherages,’ as they were called), and 163 separate shops. These buildings were located in every state of the American South, from Maryland to Texas (and there were also three in Missouri). … Local names notwithstanding, as a group they were referred to as Rosenwald schools.”

• Carol Herman is the books editor at The Washington Times.

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