Location: Atlanta, GA, United States
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 for black children 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 heard of Rosenwald schools through a preservationist who had dedicated her career to saving these structures. The story shocked me. How could I have never heard of Rosenwald schools? A fifth-generation Jewish Georgian, I had spent my life working on progressive causes. A second-generation Georgia artist, my photography was focused on exploring the complexities of the American South, and of being a minority in the South.
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, papers, and articles and more than 50 nomination forms for the National Register of Historic Places. I interviewed former students, former teachers, preservationists, and historians.
Of the original 4,978 Rosenwald schools, about five hundred survive. I photographed 105 schools in all fifteen states and drove 25,000 miles. 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.