Jerry Summers: Rosenwald Schools - Memphis

  • Monday, October 3, 2022
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The National Civil Rights Museum in the Bluff City in West Tennessee recently unveiled an exhibition highlighting the “often forgotten” Rosenwald Schools built for African American students in the 20th Century.

It is named after a board member of the Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee Normal School) that was created as a school to train black African American teachers.

Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862 to German Jewish immigrants and was a highly successful businessman who amassed great wealth by building Sears Roebuck and Company into a national chain of successful department stores that had been founded in 1892 and reincorporated in 1906 by Richard Sears and Rosenwald.

Almost 5,000 single-room schools for minorities during segregation under the “separate but equal doctrine” were built but only about 500 survived the Brown v.

Topeka Board of Education decision by the United States Supreme Court that eventually ended segregation.

Local writer Jennifer Crutchfield in an article “Rosenwald Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” describes the eight Hamilton County schools built under the program as a member of the National Park Partners and makes reference under that title on YouTube.

It covers a talk on the subject by Dr. Dorothy Canter as part of the Moccasin Bend Lecture Series from a national perspective.

Of that number only about half have been restored and in 2002 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Rosenwald School as one of the most endangered historic places in the nation.

During the segregation era many schools were erected in the Volunteer state under threats of violence and delaying tactics in construction.

The Canaan School in Columbia had one teacher who taught eight grades with discarded books from the white students of Maury County in one of the 15 black schools.

With the support of the Rosenwald Fund the existing estimate was that approximately 250-375 schools in Tennessee were constructed.

In Memphis, the Brooks Avenue School was one of around 60 Rosenwald Schools in Shelby County.  The last classes held at the school were around 1958.   It would be one of three Rosenwald Schools in southwest Memphis.

According to an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on August 24, 2022, a reunion for Brooks Avenue graduates was to be held at Riverside Missionary Church on Aug. 28 in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis that established after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. hosting a photo exhibit on the Rosenwald School that would be on display until Jan. 2, 2023.

The preservation of the Memphis Rosenwald School as a part of Southern Black History as well as all American History with both the good and bad of both the South and North should be critical in maintaining Democracy.

(The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana’s famous quote of “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is still viable)!

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You can reach Jerry Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)
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