ST. GEORGE, S.C. (AP) — As Ralph James settled into the restored, highbacked desk at the segregated school he attended in rural South Carolina, he remembered the old school bell, the cascading light through tall windows, the Christmas pageant and the basketball court just outside.
It was in schools like this one, and nearly 5,000 others built in the American South a century ago, that Black students largely ignored by whites in power gained an educational foundation through the generosity of a Jewish businessman who could soon be memorialized with a national park.
They are now called Rosenwald Schools in honor of Julius Rosenwald, a part-owner and eventual president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., who teamed up with African American educator and leader Booker T. Washington to create the program to share the expenses of schools for Black children with the community.
It was nothing short of revolutionary in a segregated place like South Carolina, where governments spent pennies to teach Black children and dollars on white students.
“Education has always been the key to success. Julius Rosenwald gave us that key,” James said.
The 76-year-old retired municipal judge has made it his life’s goal to restore his old school. In the past decade, James has secured more than $2 million in grants, money from the state and gifts from corporations and others.
The payoff is near. South Carolina’s governor is scheduled to visit the renovated Rosenwald School in St. George on Tuesday as it hosts a meeting for electric cooperatives. A grand opening is planned for September.
A nationwide movement is underway to tell the Rosenwald Schools story to more people. After a request from Congress, the National Park Service is studying how to create a national park to honor Rosenwald. A visitors center about his life would be in Chicago and the project may also include about five schools across the 15 Southern states that were home to the buildings.
Rosenwald gave $20 million to his foundation to build schools and $4 million more to other African American education and welfare causes. That would be worth about $440 million today.
It was still less than half of the money Rosenwald donated in his life to other causes including Jewish charities, hospital construction, scientific research and war relief, according to a report from The Campaign To Create a Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park.
Rosenwald was the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany and saw in African Americans a chance to help another oppressed group willing to invest what little it could in its own future, said Dorothy Canter, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist leading the national park effort. Canter was inspired to get involved after seeing a 2015 documentary on Rosenwald.
The Jewish community often saw in the Black community the same kind of violent repression they suffered in Europe, she said.
The Rosenwald Schools story is crucial to the modern success of the United States, and showing how different groups working together to create a better society when those in power did not want to help is an important lesson, Canter said.
“Where would the Civil Rights movement be? Where would John Lewis, Medgar Evers or Maya Angelou have gotten their education?” she said.
Education for Black children was an afterthought in the South in the generations after the end of slavery. More than 51% of South Carolina’s population were classified as “negro” in the 1920 census. But in 1927, the state spent $14.9 million on white students and $1.7 million on Black students, according to the education superintendent’s annual report to the Legislature.
The Rosenwald Fund helped build 481 schools in South Carolina. Only North Carolina (787) and Mississippi (557) had more.
Photographer Andrew Feiler, who is fascinated by Rosenwald’s story, has taken photos of more than 100 Rosenwald schools and plans to be at the St. George event Tuesday. For him, Rosenwald’s legacy is giving while you’re living, as well as pioneering the modern idea of a matching grant by providing seed money and requiring community support.
“We often believe problems are intractable in modern America, especially those related to race,” Feiler said. “But this partnership between African Americans and a Jewish businessman shows concerted, focused action really can make a difference.”
About 500 Rosenwald Schools remain standing and roughly half are still in a condition to be used, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
A two-room Rosenwald School in Gifford, South Carolina, was built in 1920 but is barely upright today. It closed in 1958 and was taken over by a church that had donated the land. Community meetings, concerts and family reunions were held there, but ultimately it fell into disrepair.
Charlie Grant is trying to secure the money to restore the building but hasn’t found the same support as St. George.
“I would hope to see it done in my lifetime. But if it’s not, that’s OK too,” Grant said. “I always go back to scripture. There was a Moses and there was a Joshua. Maybe I’m moving in the steps of Moses and somebody will come along and catch the vision and represent Joshua.”
Grant has a vision of the old school transformed into a community center with a small museum honoring Black gospel quartets: singing groups who crisscrossed the South during Jim Crow selling records with popular songs of hope and faith. The building is already on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Other Rosenwald schools have been converted into senior centers, town halls, special event venues or restaurants. Many remain recognizable by the careful plans Rosenwald approved. Tall windows oriented to the east and west assured an abundance of natural light and ventilation in rural areas where electricity often didn’t reach until after the Great Depression.
In St. George, the vision isn’t just restoring the school, but providing a sense of the thriving African American neighborhood surrounding it during segregation. Businesses including a grocery store, barber shop and pool hall benefitted the Black community.
Inside the restored school, two classrooms look almost as they did 70 years ago. Another classroom is a public meeting room. The auditorium has been turned into a multipurpose space and will have exhibits detailing the school’s history and hands-on science displays, James said.
“You can feel what it was like just like I did,” he said.