From 1917 to 1932, Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald donated millions of dollars to build schools for black children throughout the rural South. The project was a product of Rosenwald's partnership with African American leader, educator, and philanthropist, Booker T. Washington, who was president of Tuskegee Institute. At the behest of Washington, Rosenthald gave half the money needed and required that the black and white community work to raise the other half. Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., helped build more than 5,000 schools in 15 states. By 1928, nearly one-in-five rural Southern schools was a Rosenwald school and one-third of the South’s rural black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald Schools. 813 of the schools in North Carolina. Twenty-four Rosenwald schools were built in Mecklenburg County according to a searchable database established by Fisk University. Among those on the Fisk list but no longer surviving were schools named Clear Creek, Long Creek, Ben Salem and Rockwell. Some were near churches with the same name. Many more were built in surrounding counties, where at least seven survive.
A typical Rosenwald school building.
Rosenwald schools -- characteristically, wooden buildings with big banks of windows -- were designed to accommodate one to four teachers. Rosenwald schools began to be phased out during the 1940s and 1950s. Most operated until 1954, when the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled against legally enforced school segregation by race.
Dan Morrill, a retired UNC Charlotte history professor and consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, has verified seven surviving buildings among the 24 Mecklenburg Rosenwald schools. His observations:
- Billingsville – One of two Mecklenburg County Rosenwald Schools listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Billingsville, in the Grier Heights neighborhood and next to Billingsville Elementary School, has not sought local historic landmark designation. The building is an anomaly architecturally, one of the few Rosenwald Schools faced with brick. It has been lovingly restored through a $500,000 project completed in 2015. (Read more about Billingsville’s restoration project.)
- Caldwell – This school building in northern Mecklenburg off N.C. 73 is being used as a carpet/flooring retailer (Burgess Supply Co., 15435 N.C. 73.) It is not designated as a local historic landmark. The building is in good shape and is easily recognizable as a Rosenwald School.
- Huntersville – This school listed in the files of the N.C. Historic Preservation Office is in the Pottstown neighborhood of Huntersville (near N.C. 115 and Holbrooks Road). It is not registered as a local historic landmark. It has been modified, Morrill says, in ways not respectful of historic integrity.
- McClintock – Many of the Rosenwald schools were built in the vicinity of a church, in this case, McClintock Presbyterian Church. McClintock, on Erwin Road west of N.C. 49 in southwest Mecklenburg County, is a designated local historic landmark, though unapproved alterations have damaged the historical integrity of the building, Morrill says.
- Newell – The exterior of this building in the once-rural northeast Mecklenburg community of Newell, near UNC Charlotte, is clearly recognizable as a Rosenwald School. It is designated as a local historic landmark and is on the study list of the National Register of Historic Places.
- Smithville – The school inherited local historic landmark designation originally assigned by the Cornelius Historic Landmarks Commission. It is in a historically African American neighborhood of Cornelius on South Hill Street. It also has been modified significantly in ways that Morrill says have compromised its historic integrity. Read more about it in this 2011 article.
- Siloam – Siloam is a local historic landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The school is near the UNC Charlotte campus, just off Mallard Creek Church Road. It is a special Rosenwald School, the only one of its architectural type in Mecklenburg County. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks worked with previous owners/developers of the site to move the school to the entrance road of the site’s planned apartment complex. The developers agreed to restore the building. With the financial downturn of 2008-09, the commitment was not honored, and today the school awaits an uncertain fate.
Built in 1928-29, the Newell Rosenwald School was one of two dozen in Mecklenburg County. It's a surviving reminder of an era when black children in rural areas had few options for schooling. A nonprofit group is working to preserve the Newell Rosenwald School.
“This school represents the investment made in our community generations ago and is something current members of the community want to see continued.” — Belinda Grier, vice president, Silver Star Community Inc.
Several historic Rosenwald Schools survive in other counties in the Charlotte region:
- Rowan County – J.C. Price High School in Salisbury is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cleveland School in the town of Cleveland is on the study list of National Register of Historic Places.
- Anson County – Horne School is on the study list.
- Gaston County – Reid (Belmont) Rosenwald Teacherage is on the study list.
- Stanly County – New London School is on the study list.
- Union County – Laney School is on the study list.
- York County, S.C. – Rock Hill enjoys the Carroll (Rosenwald) School splendidly restored by the Rock Hill School District. The school is actively used by fifth grade students as part of a study unit on the Great Depression in their community and as a living example of physical history of the area’s African American community.
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Information taken from:
cmstory.org, The Charlotte Mecklenburg Story, "The Rosenwald Schools"
UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, "Aging Rosenwald Schools recall long-ago optimism," Michael J. Solender, Apr 12, 2016
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass