Home Health & Education BHM: Rosenwald Schools – a Personal Memoir

BHM: Rosenwald Schools – a Personal Memoir

by Cass Teague
Former Rosenwald High School in Madisonville Kentucky Now the Rosenwald-Smith Multicultural Organization. Here is an example of a Rosenwald School, in our neighboring state of Kentucky, one that the author’s mother and grandmother both taught at, educating African American children for decades. It now serves as a Black Cultural Center. The author’s mother and grandmother both have photos on exhibit there.

There is special exhibition opening this week at the Tennessee State Museum that focuses on sharing the histories and legacies of what were known as Rosenwald schools, the nearly 5,000 public schools in the Southeastern United States to improve education opportunities for African American students from 1912 to 1937, Julius Rosenwald rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company and turn it into the world’s largest retailer. With Booker T. Washington, the two men launched a program to partner with Black communities to build public schools for African American children. The program built 4,978 schools across 15 southern states, including 354 in Tennessee.

Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald

The first of two exhibitions around Rosenwald Schools is 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,’ and runs from February 23, 2023 through May 21, 2023. As previously told in the pages of the PRIDE, 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 2021 book of the same title, now in its third printing, and available at the Tennessee State Museum Store, as well as Nashville’s Public Library, includes an introduction by former Rosenwald school attendee and congressman, John Lewis. Interestingly, the book is divided into three sections, as follows: (1) Innovation: The Tuskegee Phase, 1912 – 1920; (2) Expansion: The Nashville Phase, 1920 – 1927; and (3) Transition: The Chicago Phase, 1927 – 1937.

I have a personal fondness and appreciation for these Rosenwald schools, as do or should most African Americans in the South. I may likely never have been born had it not been for these schools. You see, my grandmother was a teacher and principal of one of these schools, and her daughter, my mother, followed in her footsteps to teach at that same school. I vividly recall visiting the school in the 1960s as a young child where my grandmother was still teaching.

Rosenwald High School Marker (Photo by Mark Hilton, September 1, 2015)

As a local teacher and highly respected person in Madisonville, Kentucky in 1943, my mother was chosen to serve as a chaperone for a group of young women from Hopkins County, Kentucky for a dance to entertain Colored Army troops stationed at Fort Henderson. My dad was a First Sargeant, and he was one of the chaperones for the soldiers. They met there, fell in love, and the rest is history. So, had she not had the opportunity to teach at the Madisonville Rosenwald School, she likely would not have been there to meet him — Lucky me (and my sister)!

According to public records: “Professor C. L. Timberlake had established the first high school in the city of Madisonville for blacks. Rosenwald High School opened in 1932; operated until 1966. Rosenwald Foundation funded its construction. In 1936, their basketball team won the National Negro tournament. Educators included Whitney Young, Jr., Pearl Arnett, & Caldwell Smith, Sr.”

A second show, ‘Building a Bright Future: Black Communities and Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee,’ will run from June 16, 2023 through February 25, 2024 at the Tennessee State Museum.

In Conversation: Andrew Feiler, Frank Brinkley, and Charles Brinkley

Andrew Feiler will discuss his photography work and the exhibition, “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America” on Saturday, February 25 at 2:00 p.m. Afterwards, he will join brothers, educators, and preservationists Frank and Charles Brinkley in conversation about their experience as Rosenwald School students in Cairo, Tennessee. This “In Conversation” program will be held in the Digital Learning Center at the Tennessee State Museum. This is a free event, and RSVPs are not required.

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