MAGNOLIA, Ark. (AP) _ In the early 1900s, a Jewish man in Chicago, Ill., with no apparent connection to the South, began building schools for blacks in the rural South. Julius Rosenwald would become one of the most significant figures in Southern black education, and would eventually leave his mark in a small community right here in southwest Arkansas.
That school was the forerunner of the Free Hope Community Center, earlier known as the Free Hope Civic League. This year, 2012, marks the centennial of the Rosenwald School program.
According to records from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the original school _ known as “Free Hope School (Sand Ridge)'' was constructed in 1925-26, as a “three-teacher type'' building. The school was situated on three acres and was built at a cost of $4,810. Funding sources included $500 from the community, $3,410 in public funds, and $900 from Rosenwald.
The teachers' home at Free Hope School was built in 1927-28 at a total cost of $2,350. This included $400 from the community, $1,250 in public funds, and $700 from Rosenwald.
Rosenwald was born in 1862 in Springfield, Ill., to Jewish immigrant parents. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, he never completed high school or attended college. In 1878, at age 16, he was apprenticed to his uncles in New York City to learn the clothing trade.
He and his brother would later relocate to Chicago and, in 1895, Rosenwald and other financial backers invested in Sears, Roebuck and Co. The $35,000 invested in 1895 grew into $150,000 in little more than 30 years. He became president of the company in 1908, and chairman in 1922.
Rosenwald became a trustee of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1912, and made gifts to the rural school movement being carried out by the institute, primarily through close contact with his friend, Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald's philanthropy began with the support of Jewish immigrants, then expanded to include blacks after he was influenced by Washington's autobiography, “Up From Slavery.''
Washington had a goal of providing safe, purpose-built school buildings for blacks, and Rosenwald wholeheartedly agreed with _ and financially supported _ this endeavor. The rural school building program would be administered by Tuskegee until 1920, when it was taken over by the Julius Rosenwald Fund.
In 1917, Rosenwald established the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which attracted more money for the benefit of black education than any previous philanthropic undertaking. The fund's broad purpose was the betterment of mankind, aimed specifically at creating more equitable opportunities for blacks in the South.
The Rosenwald Fund would help a school only if the community had raised some of the money themselves. Rosenwald and the directors of his trust first directed their attention toward building rural schools.
State records indicate that when the fund ceased sponsoring school building programs, it had aided in the construction of 389 school buildings (such as schools, shops, and teachers' homes) in 45 counties in Arkansas. A total of 4,977 schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings were built in 15 states across the South with the assistance of more than $4.3 million from the Rosenwald Fund. The fund contributed over $300,000 to Arkansas.
The state or counties owned and maintained all of the schools, and the land was usually donated by a white landowner. Rosenwald (and Washington as well) believed very strongly in the local community playing a hands-on role in the development of the school. The local community was supposed to match the grant through cash, materials or labor so that the community would have a strong commitment to the program.
Many building campaigns were, in fact, initiated by local black leaders, and the schools built represented the community's determination to provide education for its students.
The Rosenwald building agent had the responsibility for helping the rural community to raise their share of the school's cost. He was also charged with inspecting the new buildings, promoting good will between the races, and meeting with and influencing public school officials.
With Rosenwald's death on Jan. 6, 1932, the school building portion of the Rosenwald Fund stopped, and the program, designed to spend all its funds for philanthropic purposes before a predetermined “sunset date,'' ended in 1948 after donating over $70 million to schools, colleges and universities, museums, and other charities and institutions.
According to Arkansas Historic Preservation Program records, the first truly public school system in Arkansas was created during Reconstruction. For the first time, teachers had licensing requirements and schools throughout the state had a standardized course curriculum. In 1869, Arkansas had over 600 schools educating more than 67,000 students. By 1871, the number of schools had more than doubled and student enrollment was pushing 108,000.
By 1900, the schools were having problems. Attendance was lagging around 50 percent, and Arkansas had the shortest school term in the nation. In an attempt to help remedy the problem, the state finally passed a law requiring children between ages 7-15 to attend school, and adopted standard grade school textbooks for the state.
A lingering problem with Arkansas' schools was their sheer number, which stood at over 5,000 districts in 1910. The lack of transportation required most students to walk to school, and even the smallest of communities had a school. However, most only offered classes through the eighth grade. A substantial number of the districts held school in one-room buildings that also served as the community school, church, and meeting hall.
Though dedicated to making the best of the situation, it was a nearly impossible task for one or two teachers to adequately teach children as young as five and as old as 16 simultaneously.
Although there were over 5,000 school districts, only around 150 had high schools. With so many small schools dotting the state, the limited number of education funding made improving facilities and expanding curricula nearly impossible. This was especially true in the even more inadequately funded black schools.
In the late 1920s, Arkansas began exploring the idea of consolidating schools as part of an overall reorganization of the public school system. The state department of education examined everything from current facilities, population trends, and even topographic conditions. The study recommended sweeping consolidation measures that would reduce school districts to an average of four per county.
The resulting plan also called for set student-to-teacher ratios, a 12-year education system, and free transportation for students living more than two hours away from campus.
The recommendations were never fully adopted, and only around 350 consolidated districts were formed. The education system was showing signs of improvement, and this round of consolidation was a sign of things to come.
Arkansas' economy was already slipping into the depths of depression. In an ironic twist, it was Great Depression relief programs that would leave Arkansas' districts better equipped with school facilities than ever before. New Deal programs, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and National Youth Administraton (NYA) built facilities throughout Arkansas. While most buildings were built for white students, black schools were not categorically excluded. School facilities were built in the largest cities and the smallest communities. Although the New Deal programs lasted less than a decade, there has been no other building program in the state that has had a greater impact on Arkansas schools. For the first time, many one-room schools_even in rural areas_were abandoned.
Rosenwald's generosity and philanthropic efforts were not restricted to schools, however. He financed 25 YMCA buildings and three YWCA buildings for blacks after he initiated a challenge in 1910, whereby he would give $25,000 to any community that could raise $75,000 for a black YMCA.
This stimulated gifts from other philanthropists for similar projects in many Northern and Southern cities, including the financial support for the Rosenwald Apartments, a housing development that provided low-cost housing to blacks in Chicago.
Rosenwald was also active in a number of Jewish organizations, and he granted substantial financial support to the National Urban League. He was also appointed a member of the Council on National Defense and served as chairman of its committee on supplies.
He was the principal founder and backer for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, donating more than $5 million and serving as president from 1927-32.
Most of the Rosenwald Schools in Arkansas were built in the southeastern half of the state, where there was a greater need for school facilities for black students. However, schools were built as far northwest as Franklin and Logan Counties.
To aid in the design and construction, a series of floor plans and specifications were drawn up for a variety of schools, using the most up-to-date innovations available at that time in school design. The blueprints were published in a book, “Community School Plans,'' and was available from the Rosenwald Fund through the state's education office.
It was believed that having a stock set of blueprints and specifications would allow any community to build a quality school without having to hire an architect. Although plans were provided, it was not necessary for schools to be built using the standard plans. Any non-standard plan used, however, had to be approved by the Rosenwald Fund.
These school plans would turn out to be one of Rosenwald's greatest legacies.