Fighting to save historic black schools

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The dusty floors and sagging walls of the old Mount Sinai Junior High School are a rickety reminder of a time when blacks were castoffs in the segregated South and one man tried to help.

The building is a "Rosenwald school," named for Julius T. Rosenwald, the Chicago philanthropist who helped build Mount Sinai and more than 5,000 similar schools across the rural South in the early 1900s.

Located in 15 states, the schools – built at the suggestion of Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington – provided an education for untold numbers of Southern blacks who might not have attended school otherwise.

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Nearly all the schools had closed by the 1960s, as rural schools were consolidated and integration spread. Many were razed, some were converted to homes, barns, or community centers, and others were left to fall apart.

Today, former students and historic preservationists are working to save the remaining pieces of Rosenwald's legacy after decades of neglect.

The nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation included Rosenwald schools on this year's list of the most endangered historic places in America, and state preservation agencies across the region are trying to locate the buildings in hopes of refurbishing at least some.

The most intense interest comes from onetime students of the schools. Mack Houser is part of a group raising money to refurbish Mount Sinai, which operated from 1919 to 1967, about 20 miles north of Montgomery, Ala.

Mr. Houser remembers sweating through the stifling Alabama heat when he attended Mount Sinai for about 10 years, beginning in 1942. He gathered sticks to feed the school's four potbellied stoves in the winter.

All but one of the stoves remain in the old four-room school, along with dozens of hardwood desks, the original piano, and shelves full of books, including an English literature text dated 1926.

"It would have been much different without Rosenwald," says Houser, standing in a classroom with 12-foot ceilings, thick plank paneling, and a musty smell. Weeds snake inside through a hole in the siding.

"We had to memorize a lot of things: songs, history, pledges, some Scripture," remembers Zenobia Faye Marshall, who graduated from the school in 1961. "We've got doctors, lawyers, and all kinds of professional people who came from here."

The early schools had no electricity or plumbing, just big windows and outhouses. Each school adjoined land for gardens, and all offered industrial education and home economics.

While Rosenwald schools are considered endangered in general, no one is sure exactly how many still exist, says Hap Connors of the National Trust. Of 389 Rosenwald schools built in Alabama, the state knows of fewer than 20 still standing. Of 25 schools built around Charlotte, N.C., only four remain. The success of the schools' design makes it harder for historians to identify true Rosenwald buildings, since some 11,000 schools for whites were constructed using the same blueprints.

The son of Jewish German immigrants, Rosenwald was president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and helped build the chain into a retailing giant. He struck up a friendship with Booker T. Washington and gave $25,000 in 1912 to help black colleges like Tuskegee, located in east Alabama. Washington persuaded Rosenwald to let some of the money be used as grants for schools in rural black areas, many of which had none.

The donations continued and grew: By 1932, Rosenwald had given $4.2 million to help build 5,300 schools. The grants had to be matched by the communities, and blacks donated some $4.7 million.

"It's important to note that black people gave more to build these schools than he did," says Peter Ascoli, Rosenwald's grandson.

Local governments also gave money for the buildings, which were public schools. White-controlled school boards, however, rarely gave the schools more money once they opened, leaving them with old books and few resources.

While some philanthropies shied away from giving money to educate Southern blacks for fear of offending whites, Mr. Ascoli says, Rosenwald was undeterred. "He didn't really care about that. He just felt he should go ahead."

There was other resistance. In some areas, the Ku Klux Klan opposed construction of Rosenwald schools, and in Arkansas, they allegedly burned one down.

At Mount Sinai, organizers recently received a state grant for $18,600 to do more restoration work. The roof and some window frames already have been replaced.

Scores students still come back each July for a reunion, and the old school is used sporadically as a community center. But time is taking its toll. Rotting wood is visible on the exterior, and much of the back of the building is drooping toward the ground.

Houser hopes to preserve the school while former students are still able to come see it. "It's such a historic building because of the reason it was built," he says.

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