When Burritt on the Mountain first looked into building a replica of a Rosenwald school, Chief Programs Officer Tammy Cooney admits she didn’t know much about the history.
Rosenwald schools were some of the many thousands of structures built in the early 1900s to educate African American students in the Jim Crow South. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) called the movement the “most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century.”
As Cooney and others learned more about the schools and their influence on the South, they decided to build a reproduction in Huntsville.
“Part of our mission (at Burritt) is preservation and part of it is education,” she said. “It’s preserving the building but it’s also preserving the history associated with it. Even though this is a replica, the history associated with the Rosenwald schools, I think, is such an important message for people to know and to learn from.”
Rosenwald school history
Despite the significance of Rosenwald schools in our nation’s black history, few Americans know about them.
Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, with support from black and white communities, helped fund and launch nearly 5,000 new schools in 15 states starting in 1912. The schools focused on reading, writing, arithmetic and vocational learning, which Washington promoted to secure funding for the program.
“In a lot of ways, he promoted vocational learning not just because he believed it was important for students to have skills, but also to get more buy-in from white communities who, in the era following slavery, were still very suspicious of African Americans getting a formal academic education,” said Burritt educator Courtney Little.
As a result, Little said black students received a well-rounded education that emphasized both academic and vocational learning.
Little said many of the schools stuck around for decades until they fell into disrepair, became too small for their communities or public schools integrated following Brown v. Board of Education. Most of these schools have since been demolished.
In 2002, NTHP placed Rosenwald schools on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. According to the organization, only 10-12 percent of the structures still stand today.
Dorothy Davidson Rosenwald Schoolhouse
Open since 2017, the replica Dorothy Davidson Rosenwald Schoolhouse at Burritt features two classrooms, a teacher’s room, an industrial room and a permanent exhibit highlighting the story of the Rosenwald schools. The exhibit also explores the friendship between Rosenwald and Washington and how the program affected generations of African American families.
“(Rosenwald schools) served a really large portion of the African American educational landscape,” Little said. “Between 20-40 percent of African American children, depending on what year you’re talking about, would’ve gone to a Rosenwald school.”
Using digitized records from NTHP and Fisk University, Burritt worked with an architect to build a replica of a Rosenwald school. While the facility does have some modern concessions (heating and cooling, indoor plumbing, electricity and a ramp that meets Americans with Disabilities Act specifications), it’s almost an exact copy of what a Rosenwald school looked like in the early 20th century.
Cooney said the reclaimed wood floors, vintage desks and other features give the site a “very authentic” feeling.
“People who have come through who actually went to a Rosenwald school – older African American visitors – have told us the feel of the school and the way it looks is just like their school was,” she said.
To allow local students to experience what it was like to attend a Rosenwald school, Burritt offers field trips through its 1918 School Programs. The full School Day Experience, designed for fourth and fifth graders, allows students to enjoy an entire day of learning structured by the Burritt education department in association with the teachers.
Wearing era-appropriate clothes, boys and girls get real lessons in reading, arithmetic, spelling and penmanship that reflect the times but also meet today’s educational standards. Little said students overwhelmingly love using a dip pin and bottle of ink to practice writing the way students from the past would.
Their lunches come in buckets or pails, they say the 1918 Pledge of Allegiance, and, for an extra fee, they can participate in a vocational training lesson, such as basket weaving or gardening. When the weather is nice, Little said students have recess and lunch outside.
Cooney said adults can also take classes there at the Burritt Folk School. Workshops include wood-burning, stained glass, jewelry making, blacksmithing, quilling and more.
As Burritt prepares to reopen May 23 following COVID-19, Cooney said the Rosenwald Schoolhouse offers a glimpse at a little known yet significant part of the African American story.
“It’s a fascinating history and, to me, it’s a history of hope – that this program evolved and how people worked together to overcome hardship,” she said. “I think it’s a very important lesson for us to always know and is very appropriate now – about pulling together and overcoming a hardship.”
As part of National Historic Preservation Month, the City of Huntsville is running an all-digital #ThisPlaceMattersHsv campaign through the end of May. The effort will showcase beloved historic civic buildings, public spaces, businesses, schools and houses of worship in Huntsville.
Cooney and Little will join City Preservation Planner Katie Stamps at 2 p.m. May 22 on Instagram for a live interview about the Rosenwald Schoolhouse. If you can’t make it, visit the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission’s Facebook or Instagram to watch it later.
You can also check City Blog every Friday at 10 a.m. in May for a new feature in celebration of Historic Preservation Month.
Little, who first learned about Rosenwald schools through a #ThisPlaceMatters campaign in North Carolina, encourages residents to visit the local reproduction if they haven’t already.
“This building is a great stand-in for such an important part of our educational history and our complicated racial history that is largely removed from our landscape now,” she said. “Not for any malicious intent necessarily, but most of these schools just don’t exist anymore so it’s very important for us to point visitors toward this really important history that’s not physical.”