The National Civil Rights Museum will unveil an exhibit highlighting an impactful and often forgotten educational project for Black students during the 20th century.
“A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America” is a traveling photography exhibit about Rosenwald schools built from 1912 to 1937 in the segregated South. The exhibition of 23 photos will be unveiled on Thursday.
Photographer Andrew Feiler spent more than three years documenting what remains of the schools and the stories behind them.
“There wasn’t a comprehensive photographic record of the program, so I set out to do just that. And over 3½ years, I drove 25,000 miles across all 15 program states,” says Feiler, who is also behind the book which inspired the exhibition.
Julius Rosenwald, co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Booker T. Washington worked together to open and fund schools that served primarily Black students in rural communities to improve access to education. There were about 250 in Tennessee alone, with a number in the Memphis area.
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“We often believe in America that problems are unsolvable, especially those related to race,” Feiler said. “Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington are reaching across the lines of race, or religion and region. And they are fundamentally changing this country.”
In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the Rosenwald Schools as one of the Most Endangered Historic Places. Across the South there were originally almost 5,000 Rosenwald Schools. Only about 500 of those survived, and only half of those have been restored. Feiler surveyed 105 of these schools.
“I have come across schoolhouses that have collapsed so recently that they are surrounded by yellow caution tape or emergency fencing, but these structures are locusts of history and memory, and it is vitally important that we preserve our historic resources to be the vessels that carry our history , tell our history,” Feiler said.
“When we lose structures like this, we lose a piece of the American song. And so there’s an inherent message in this body of work, which is the importance of historic preservation, the importance of preserving a diverse American narrative in telling the important role these Rosenwald schools played in bringing African Americans more into the promise of America.”
While working on his first book, “Regardless of Sex, Race, or Color:
The past, present and future of one historically black college,” Feiler said he understood the importance of education to the thread of American history from the first public school that opened in 1624 to the conversations about affordable access to higher education today.
“This is a 375-year story in which education has been the backbone of the American dream, the ramp to the American middle class, is now a tradition at risk,” Feiler said. “And we need to think seriously about how we continue to make education the vector for the promise of America.”
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In the 20 years since the Rosenwald schools were founded, they have educated more than 700,000 students. And the legacy of the schools lives on in their alumni and their descendants. Famous Americans Maya Angelou and the late Congressman John Lewis are both graduates of Rosenwald schools. Lewis wrote the forward to “A Better Life for their Children.”
In the exhibition, Feiler presents the stories of many attendees and descendants of people connected to the school. One photo shows brothers Frank and Charles Brinkley.
“They both went to college. They both went to school. Frank Brinkley becomes a high school math and science teacher. His brother Charles becomes a middle school principal,” Feiler said. “They have four siblings, all of whom came through this school. These six siblings have 10 children, all 10 children went to college. That legacy might not have happened without this schoolhouse.”
The majority of the structures have collapsed or been torn down, but Feiler said some have been preserved in new ways, including being repurposed as a town hall, community center, church halls, private homes and apartments.
Noelle Trent, director of interpretation, collections and education at the National Civil Rights Museum, agreed that the exhibit embodies big themes of equality in education and the importance of preservation.
“What I think is important about this exhibit is not only that you see the actual schools and the inside of the schools or the sites where the schools existed, but you see the people who attended the schools. And that’s what’s important about conservation.” Trent said. “It’s not just about preserving the geographic landscape and environment. It’s about preserving those stories around it that constantly remind us and connect us to the past.”
“A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America” will be on display at the National Civil Rights Museum through Jan. 2.
Astrid Kayembe covers South Memphis, Whitehaven and Westwood. She can be reached at [email protected], (901) 304-7929 or on Twitter @astridkayembe_.