On January 30 Preservation Leadership Forum hosted the most recent Forum Webinar, which outlined the ongoing Rosenwald Schools GIS Mapping Project. This work, funded in part by the National Park Service, is expanding our understanding of the current status of Rosenwald Schools throughout the United States. Speakers John Hildreth, senior advisor for special projects at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Ian Spangler, Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky, covered everything from the origin of Rosenwald schools to their future potential in telling the full American story.
A recording of the webinar and a PDF of the slide deck are available in our Webinar Library. Presenters could not get to all the questions during the webinar, so we are featuring their answers to the remainder (lightly edited for clarity) here.
What is happening at the congressional level to establish a national park? How could one become involved with the development process?
John Hildreth: The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is leading the charge to establish a national park, and the National Trust is supporting the effort. Learn more about NPCA.
How can I find out whether [a specific Rosenwald school] that I am working to renovate is currently a part of the GIS report?
Ian Spangler: Ask me! Email me at ian.spangler[at]uky.edu, and I can confirm whether your school is in the dataset. And if it’s not, I can add it. The eventual goal is to create an interactive web map showing the locations of known schools; that would allow anybody to easily check whether a school is listed.
Who is going to keep adding new data, and how can we submit information?
Hildreth: The National Trust is seeking funding to match a gift and establish a Rosenwald endowment at the Trust. That endowment would aid in ongoing work such as the GIS database. We are hoping to raise funds for internships or staffing to maintain this effort and provide more resources for the preservation of Rosenwald schools.
Did Ian Spangler use the data that the state historic preservation officers (SHPOs) submitted to the NPCA?
Hildreth: The list SHPOs submitted to the NPCA should have included the schools in their existing surveys, and those were also shared with us. We will double check to make certain that those schools are included.
What is your current relationship with Fisk University? Are you working with it to preserve data from the Julius Rosenwald Fund Archive? Are you including Fisk University as a primary source of information for the GIS Mapping Project?
Hildreth: As part of the Fisk Archive, the university hosts a searchable online database of the existing Rosenwald Fund “card files” and corresponding photo files. This makes the files more accessible and helps preserve the original documents from overuse. While that database was developed in partnership between the National Trust and Fisk, there are no current initiatives underway in partnership with the university.
Has any research been done on the plan development of each model? Do we know the names of the architects or draftsmen? Were they white or black? Were any women associated with the drawings/dissemination? Did they have previous experience with academic buildings?
Spangler: Yes, research has been done on the development of the plans and designs of the schools—and how they changed. Robert R. Taylor, the first accredited African American architect and first black student enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed the first Rosenwald school plan and is associated with early plans at the Tuskegee Institute. Samuel Smith designed later ones.
Taylor was black, Smith was white. Many white people remained in charge of the construction of Rosenwald schools. There were conflicting power dynamics at play determining how the schools were funded and built, often mediated through white superintendents and Rosenwald state agents. This wasn’t inherently a bad thing, but it does complicate and perhaps problematize our vision of the schools as an entirely grassroots endeavor. Consider the fact that they were being built at the beginning of the Great Migration—in droves, African Americans were leaving the rural South for the urban North, which made the local planter elite terrified of losing an affordable labor force. Thus, many of them were quite supportive of Rosenwald schools, which gave them the opportunity to act in their self-interest while claiming altruism. This may have been part of Booker T. Washington’s plan all along, though; he was a shrewd strategist and probably wouldn’t have been opposed as long as the schools got built.
I don’t know whether either Taylor or Smith had had prior experience with academic buildings—and of course we can only speculate about the many other architects who must have been associated with Rosenwald school design. It’s possible that it is because communities tended to provide the building labor—which, interestingly, counted as a monetary donation toward the funds they were obligated to raise—that the architects’ names are often missing from the archive.
While it didn’t always come in the form of architectural plans, women’s work was absolutely essential to the success of Rosenwald projects. One of the first Rosenwald schools in Notasulga, Alabama, was funded thanks to a nine-year campaign by a woman named Mary Johnson. Women and girls were pivotal in organizing fundraisers, preparing food for rallies, and facilitating donations through events like bake sales and festivals. In fact, the Jeannes Foundation, which provided something of a preamble to the Rosenwald schools by supporting black women educators in the South, was founded by Anna T. Jeannes in the early 20th century.
The premier text on Rosenwald schools is Mary Hoffschwelle’s “The Rosenwald Schools of the American South,” which I have relied on significantly and can’t recommend highly enough. Ellen Weiss has also written a book on the partnership between Rosenwald and Washington. Samuel Smith’s “Builders of Goodwill” is an account from a Rosenwald school architect, and F.B. Dresslar wrote a report on Rosenwald school buildings. My story map, which might answer some of your other questions in a more narrative form, includes hyperlinks as well as a bibliography with references to all of these materials.
Wouldn't more Alabama—and other states’—schools be in the dataset if Fisk was downloaded?
Spangler: Not necessarily. The location information in the Fisk database specifies only what county a school was in, which is not sufficient to map it. The original records in the fund cards often don’t include addresses—sometimes because a school didn’t even have an address, relying instead on directions like “1/2 a mile up Route 50, on the left.” To find and map these schools, we must rely on a combination of information from other sources, such as National Register of Historic Places submissions, local knowledge, and SHPO surveys. Based on those three, we can confidently identify the locations of 599 of the nearly 5,400 original Rosenwald structures. That number will grow once we incorporate Tennessee’s and Virginia’s new surveys.
Hildreth: The intent of the map is to document the surviving Rosenwald Schools and their locations, whereas the Fisk database is the record of the Rosenwald Fund’s activities in helping to build the schools.
Are you working with researchers who are doing projects on Rosenwald schools?
Spangler: Yes, at least from the GIS angle. Independent researchers in Georgia, Maryland, and Mississippi have done excellent archival work on Rosenwald schools—their work constitutes the core knowledge of Rosenwald schools in those states.
Hildreth: We depend on researchers to provide information, usually through the SHPOs, to help us identify schools. And through our existing grant programs, trainings, and publications we help activists who are working to preserve individual schools.
Will Booker T. Washington be recognized in any of the processes?
Spangler: Absolutely. In my story map, I tried to foreground both the contributions of black communities who built the schools and Washington’s foundational role in starting them. I offer a summary of his self-help philosophy and discuss how that philosophy was materialized in the schools themselves, as well as the funding model that Rosenwald ultimately created for distributing grants.