Along The Great Wagon Road: The Rosenwald Schools

Sep 11, 2014

It's time for another radio road trip Along The Great Wagon Road - our series exploring the history of the Charlotte region with Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South.

Today, our road trip takes us north on I-77  a bit to Huntersville, where an extraordinary piece of American history is hidden in plain sight. It’s a monument to one of America’s great forgotten philanthropists and of white-black partnership in the Jim Crow South.

Once the Caldwell Rosenwald School, this building on Sam Furr Road is now home to the Burgess Supply Company, a carpet store.
Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News

If you’re driving down Sam Furr Road it’s easy to miss the single-story white building with big oak trees out front. For 65 years the building has been home to the Burgess Supply Company, a carpet store.

But the building itself is much older than that. It dates to a time before subdivisions and SUV’s defined Huntersville. A time long before concrete and steel came together to stifle the flow of the Catawba River and create what we now call Lake Norman. Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum and our guide Along The Great Wagon Road, says the white single-story building with large floor to ceiling windows was once the Caldwell School. "When this school was built in 1923-24, this was farmland. And the main people working the land were African-American tenant farmers."

At the turn of the 20th century, African-American children in poor, rural areas like Huntersville didn’t have many options for formal education. Many were only one or two generations beyond slavery, when many African-Americans were forbidden to learn to read or write. Education was a way out of poverty says Hanchett, "Without that you were stuck."

At that time white school boards controlled black schools, but Hanchett says they were reluctant to spend a penny they didn’t have to on African-American schools. "And so Rosenwald and Washington put together this matching grant program."

Julius Rosenwald (left) and Booker T. Washington (right) came up with the matching grant program that lead to the Rosenwald Schools.
Credit From Historical Archieves

Washington, as in Booker T. Washington, the author, orator, activist and educator who founded what became Tuskegee University.

Julius Rosenwald was a white businessman from Illinois that turned a mail order watch company into a household name. In an era when retail was mostly done at a general store at the corner, Hanchett says Rosenwald was a visionary, "He's the guy who built Sears Roebuck into the world’s largest retailer."

Both men had something to gain by educating poor Southern blacks. Washington realized feeder schools were needed to make his black college work. As for Rosenwald, "He realized that if African-Americans were left behind in the South it would not just be bad for him but bad for everyone."

Rosenwald’s business acumen made him rich. That money turned him into a philanthropist. And as a Jew in early 20th century America, he knew prejudice. So Rosenwald partnered with Washington to create those matching grants to African-American communities that wanted to build new schools of their own.

The original hardwood floors are still in use at the Burgess Supply Company. This was once the Caldwell Rosenwald School.
Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News

You can hear the history of the original wood floors when you walk into the old Caldwell school.

"We have high ceilings, big windows that are facing south, wooden floors. There’s wainscoting with tongue-and-groove beadboard around the lower area."

High ceilings kept things cool in an era before air conditioning; southern-facing windows took care of heat and more importantly, light. The space could be split into four classrooms during the day; children were grouped by age up to eighth grade, which was standard for the era.

Large archways between the rooms had partitions that slid up and down, allowing the building to be opened up into a large space used for community meetings like fish fries and 4-H.

Though they couldn’t have known it at the time, the plans would be considered cutting-edge sustainability nearly a century later. Some innovations were cutting edge for the time. Hanchett points out the cloak room. "In an era when most private houses didn’t have closets, this was a new development." Hanchett adds sheepishly, "I remember the cloak room was where I had to go when I misbehaved."

One of the original architectural plans of the Rosenwald Schools
Credit Courtesy of Tom Hanchett

This design was replicated at some 5,300 times. Rosenwald schools were built from Maryland to Texas, North Carolina had the most. There were 26 in Mecklenburg County alone. But most did not have any mention of Rosenwald in their names. "Julius Rosenwald did not seek fame and fortune in that way."

African-American communities and giving circles raised money for matching grants, and the Rosenwald schools were a source of community pride. By 1932, Rosenwald schools could accommodate one-third of all African-American children in the South.

That same year Julius Rosenwald died at the age of 69. And by design, says Hanchett, so did his charitable endeavors. "Julius Rosenwald said, 'I’m not smart enough to set up a philanthropic organization that will go on in perpetuity.'" Rosenwald was more interested in solving the issues of his time. "It would be better to invest my money now on things that are needed now to make a better world." Rosenwald's fund folded shortly after his death.

Overall, Rosenwald spent more than $4 million on these schools.

Public schools eventually were desegregated and consolidated, which offered more opportunities for students, with big libraries and labs. Rural places became less rural. But Hanchett believes "These Rosenwald Schools are a link to an emotionally powerful past."

And as development moved in, many Rosenwald schools were lost. But a handful survive as a tangible reminder of how education can tie a community together.