On St. Mary’s Road out in northwest Durham County, there stands a white frame building with twin front doors and a sign out front: “The Russell School is a Rosenwald School c. 1926.”
It is, said Tracy Hayes, “a beautiful pristine example of a surviving Rosenwald school.”
Tracy Hayes speaks with authority. She is project manager with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s program for preserving Rosenwald Schools, which opens a four-day conference Wednesday in Durham.
“The Raleigh-Durham area is really central to a great deal of the Rosenwald School restoration activity,” Hayes said. “So it was a good place to draw folks from ... all of the neighboring states which have a good bit of activity going on.”
The Russell School is the only remaining of 18 Rosenwald Schools for black children that were built in Durham County, according to a database maintained at Fisk University (nando.com/1dd).
Between 1913 and 1932, years of Jim Crow segregation, the Chicago foundation helped finance over 5,000 schools, workshops and on-campus homes for teachers and principals, from Maryland into Texas.
“Maybe 10 to 12 percent of the school buildings survive,” Hayes said, and over the past 15 or so years there has been a grassroots surge of interest in locating the survivors and preserving them “as vital and useful buildings in their communities.”
North Carolina had the most Rosenwald Schools of any state, Hayes said – 787, to go with 18 faculty homes and eight vocational shops. “Around 129, 130” are still standing, she said.
Hayes said she expects more than 300 to attend the conference (nando.com/1dc), the National Trust’s third on Rosenwald Schools. Events include documentary movies, presentations on individual preservation projects, field trips and a “starlight jazz soiree” at the Russell School (nando.com/1df) on Friday night.
Pockets of preservation
Rosenwald Schools were the result of collaboration between the black educator Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the philanthropy-minded president of Sears, Roebuck.
Rosenwald was a donor to Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute and in 1913 Washington began using Rosenwald money to build schools in rural Alabama communities. Rosenwald liked the program and set up a foundation. the Rosenwald Fund, that offered matching grants for school buildings to serve black children.
Black communities, along with white supporters and public-school systems, raised money to go along with Rosenwald grants. Most paid for small country schools that typically became points of pride for the under-served and largely disenfranchised people whose efforts and cash went into their founding.
Over time, though, many of the Rosenwald Schools were replaced – particularly, Hayes said, in the 1940s and ’50s when Southern school systems went on building campaigns for new, up-to-date “separate but equal” black schools in hopes of heading off desegregation.
Many of the old Rosenwald Schools were left to run down until grassroots interest in preserving them took root, often among Rosenwald alumni.
“In the 1990s, early 2000s, we started receiving calls in our Southern office ... for assistance,” Hayes said. “This pattern developed all around the region. ... So we realized there was a lot of activity going but it was all in pockets.”
In 2002, the National Trust put Rosenwald Schools on its annual list of “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” in the U.S. (nando.com/1db) and began actively supporting their documenting and preservation.
One of those grassroots groups, now incorporated as Friends of the Russell Rosenwald School, was made up of former Russell students and members of the Cain’s Chapel Church next door – itself established after the Civil War by former slaves from area farms – which had owned the school building since the 1930s.
About the same time as the Trust was getting involved – and an Atlantic magazine story and History Channel documentary came out – that group began raising money for some needed repairs and upkeep that have brought the old school up to what Hayes called “pristine” condition. In 2009, the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“That alumni group has done a beautiful job of preserving that building,” Hayes said. “It’s a wonderful school and location, and I hope we can get a lot of people out to see how well preserved and well taken care of it is.”
Conferring in Durham
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s third National Rosenwald Schools Conference, “Sharing the Past, Shaping the Future,” runs today through Friday at the Durham Convention Center, with events also at the Durham Armory, History Hub, N.C. Central University and The Russell School.
Registration opens at noon Wednesday. An all-day civil rights tour to Greensboro leaves early Wednesday, other conference sessions begin Thursday morning. Cost is $325 per person, $125 for full-time students with current student ID, $80 for youth 17 and under.
For information and schedules, see nando.com/1dc.
Rosenwald Schools were named for Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who, in cooperation with educator Booker T. Washington, established a foundation to build schools for black children in the South, primarily in rural areas. Between 1913 and 1932, the Rosenwald Fund donated helped finance almost 5,000 schools that served more than 663,000 students in 15 states.