A Better Life for Their Children
Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America
Through January 2, 2023
Included with Museum Admission
In the early decades of the twentieth century, a visionary partnership between a Black educator and a white business leader launched transformational change across the segregated South. A new book of photographs and stories brings readers into the impactful, yet largely unknown, story of Rosenwald schools. A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America is the latest book from photographer and author Andrew Feiler. The late Congressman John Lewis, a Rosenwald school alum, contributed the book’s foreword.
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 the Tuskegee Institute.
In 1912 the two men launched an ambitious program to partner with Black communities to build public schools for African American children. From 1912 to 1937, when few such schools existed, the program built 4,978 schools across fifteen southern and border states. Rosenwald schools – one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and African Americans – drove dramatic improvement in Black educational attainment and educated the generation who became leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
Julius Rosenwald created the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to manage his growing school-building program. The fund moved to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1920. The new Rosenwald Fund employees at the Nashville office set new standards for schools. The grants now required matching funds from the communities that wanted schools. The local Black community and its white school district had to match the amount of the grant. Rosenwald asked for a match to encourage communities to work together in building the schools. Some community members contributed building materials and labor as their match. Black communities also held fish frys, bake sales, and other events to raise money. Rosenwald hoped his money would jumpstart a school and then not need his support.
Of the original 4,978 schools, only about 500 survive. To tell this story visually, Feiler drove more than twenty-five thousand miles, photographed 105 schools, and interviewed dozens of former students, teachers, preservationists, and community leaders. Brief narratives written by Feiler accompany each photograph, telling the stories of Rosenwald schools’ connections to the Trail of Tears, Great Migration, Tuskegee Syphilis Study, embezzlement, and murder.
Today the Rosenwald School Project houses its archives at the Fisk University Special Collections.
About the photographer
Andrew Feiler is a fifth-generation Georgian. Having grown up Jewish in Savannah, he has been shaped by the rich complexities of the American South. Feiler has long been active in civic life. He has helped create over a dozen community initiatives, serves on multiple not-for-profit boards, and is an active advisor to numerous elected officials and political candidates. His art is an extension of his civic values.
Feiler’s photographs have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, Architect, Preservation, Eye on Photography, The Forward as well as on CBS This Morning and NPR. His work has been displayed in galleries and museums including solo exhibitions at such venues as the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. His work is in a number of public and private collections including that of Atlanta University Center and Emory University.