In the early 20th century, a historic collaboration led to the building of nearly 5,000 public schools in the Southeastern United States to improve education opportunities for African American students. In 2023, the Tennessee State Museum will focus on sharing the histories and legacies of what were known as Rosenwald schools, with two temporary exhibitions.
The first show, a traveling photography exhibit by Andrew Feiler, titled ‘A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America,’ will run from February 23, 2023–May 21, 2023.
For his photography exhibition, Feiler drove more than 25,000 miles, photographed 105 schools, and interviewed former students, teachers, preservationists, and community leaders from each participating state. Feiler’s book of the same title, now in its third printing and available at the Tennessee State Museum Store, includes an introduction by former Rosenwald school attendee and congressman, John Lewis.
It contains 85 images that capture interiors and exteriors, schools restored and yet-to-be restored, and portraits of people with compelling connections to these schools. The accompanying traveling exhibition originated at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, and can currently be viewed at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The Tennessee State Museum is the next stop on its tour.
The second show, ‘Building a Bright Future: Black Communities and Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee,’ will run from June 16, 2023 through February 25, 2024. Created in partnership with Fisk University’s John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, home of the Julius Rosenwald Fund archive, the exhibition will focus on the work of alumni, descendants, and scholars to research and preserve the historic records, stories, and buildings associated with Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee. Tennessee State Museum staff are currently traveling the state to meet with stakeholders in preparation for the exhibition.
“Over the span of 25 years, the building of these schools helped change the lives of thousands of African American children,” said Ashley Howell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum. “This greatly affected Black education and informs Black history in the South. The exhibitions are a wonderful opportunity to share these stories (many of them lesser known) on the power and importance of community, collaboration, and philanthropy.”
Born to Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company and turn it into the world’s largest retailer. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington became the founding principal of the Tuskegee Institute. Together, the two men launched a program to partner with Black communities to build public schools for African American children. During that time, African American students faced obstacles posed by racial segregation, violence, and discrimination.
from 1912 to 1937, the program built 4,978 schools across 15 southern states, including 354 in Tennessee. Rosenwald schools drove dramatic improvement in Black educational attainment and educated the generation who became leaders of the Civil Rights movement.