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A Better Life for Their Children

Andrew Feiler | United States

Julius Rosenwald – Noble Hill School, Bartow County, Georgia

Julius Rosenwald led Sears, Roebuck and Company from 1908 until 1932. He turned Sears into the world's largest retailer and became one of the earliest and greatest philanthropists in American history. His cause was what would later become known as civil rights. The son of Jewish immigrants who had fled religious persecution in Germany, Rosenwald felt deep affection for America as a haven from anti-Semitism. He saw that haven weakened by the country's treatment of Blacks. "I am interested in America," he said. "I do not see how America can go ahead if part of its people are left behind."

Born to Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company and turn it into the world’s largest retailer. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington became founding principal of Tuskegee Institute.

In 1912 the two men launched an ambitious program to partner with Black communities across the segregated South in building public schools for African American children.  From 1912 to 1937, when few such schools existed, the program built 4,978 schools across fifteen states. This watershed moment in philanthropy – one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and African Americans – drove dramatic improvement in African American educational attainment and educated the generation who became leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.

Of the original 4,978 schools, about 500 survive. In creating the first photographic account of this program, Andrew Feiler drove 25,000 miles across all fifteen program states and photographed 105 schools. The work includes interiors and exteriors, schools restored and yet-to-be restored, and portraits of people with compelling connections to these schools. Brief narratives written by Feiler accompany each image.

Born to Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company and turn it into the world’s largest retailer. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington became the founding principal of Tuskegee Institute.

In 1912 the two men launched an ambitious program to partner with Black communities across the segregated South in building public schools for African American children.  From 1912 to 1937, when few such schools existed, the program built 4,978 schools across fifteen states. This watershed moment in philanthropy – one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and African Americans – drove dramatic improvement in African American educational attainment and educated the generation who became leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.

I first learned about this partnership from a preservationist and was shocked I had never heard of it. I am a fifth-generation Jewish Georgian and civic activist. The pillars of this story are the pillars of my life. I set out to document this narrative through black-and-white photographs that paid homage to photographs of children and teachers proudly gathered in front of their schools that are a prominent visual element of this program’s history.

In creating the first comprehensive photographic account of Rosenwald schools, I spent hours online finding surviving schools and their stories. I read dozens of books and papers and 50 National Register of Historic Places nomination forms.  I interviewed former students, former teachers, preservationists, and historians.

Of the original 4,978 Rosenwald schools, about 500 survive. I drive 25,000 miles across all fifteen program states and photographed 105 schools. The work includes interiors and exteriors, schools restored and yet-to-be restored, and portraits of people with compelling connections to these schools. Brief narratives written by me accompany each image, telling the stories of Rosenwald schools’ connections to the Trail of Tears, the Great Migration, the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown vs. Board of Education, embezzlement, murder, and more. A book of this work was recently published by University of Georgia Press. The foreword is by John Lewis, a Rosenwald school alum. The exhibition of this work premieres this spring in Atlanta at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. 

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