30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 21

Archaeological Survey of Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee

Ben Nance
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

In 1911 Booker T. Washington, a former slave who later founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, met with Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, to discuss a plan to build schools for black children in the South. Their subsequent collaboration led to the establishment of the Julius Rosenwald Fund and the construction of more than 5,300 schools, industrial shops, and teacher homes in fifteen states between 1912 and 1932. In Tennessee the Rosenwald Fund contributed to the construction of 354 schools, 9 teacher homes, and 10 industrial shops.

Restored Cairo School, Sumner County

Restored Cairo School, Sumner County

As the 100th anniversary of the Rosenwald program in 2012 approached, there was an increased interest in locating surviving Rosenwald Schools, spurred on by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Steve Rogers with the Tennessee Historical Commission suggested conducting an archaeological survey to locate the sites of Tennessee’s Rosenwald Schools, and he helped secure funding for the first phase of the project. The archaeological site survey approach is one that has been successfully used by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology since the first systematic study in 1977. Since then a series of site survey projects has led to the addition of more than 2,000 recorded historic period archaeological sites to the statewide site file maintained by the Division of Archaeology (Smith 2006).

With the initial success of the school building program, Rosenwald continued to provide funds that had to be matched by public money. Booker T. Washington died in 1915, and the Tuskegee Institute continued to administer the school building program until 1920. A 1919 inspection of the Rosenwald Schools that had been built thus far found that most of the schools did not meet all of the standards expected of these new schools. In 1920 Rosenwald moved the program from Tuskegee and placed it under the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation that he had formed in 1917 with its office in Nashville (Hoffschwelle 2006; Deutsch 2011)

Community School Plan for a One-Teacher School (From http://www.historysouth.org/schoolplans.html)

Community School Plan for a One-Teacher School (source)

Rosenwald hired Samuel L. Smith, Tennessee’s Agent for Negro Schools, to lead the Nashville office. Smith designed the Community School Plans that would be used for most Rosenwald Schools from 1920 until the end of the program. These plans featured large banks of windows for adequate light and ventilation and movable partitions by which a larger space could be opened. Rosenwald intended for these buildings to be more than schools; they were to be centers of the communities where public meetings could be held and people could gather for entertainment such as movies or plays. He also required that the community using the school raise some of the money to ensure their commitment to the project.

Sam Smith, long time employee of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and now retired, and I began our survey with background research using the Fisk University Rosenwald database. We then consulted several types of historical maps including older USGS topographic quads, county highway maps, a set of 1936 bus route maps, and Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. Using this information we began our field portion of the survey, attempting to locate each of the school sites and assess their archeological integrity.

Thus far we have visited slightly less than half of the sites, finding about 22 standing structures and the remains of several more. A few of the standing schools have been completely restored and are available for use as community centers as Julius Rosenwald had originally intended. Other standing schools are currently in use as private residences, churches, a tobacco barn, and even a night club in which James Brown once played. Some buildings have been abandoned and are in various states of decay.

Ruins of Salem School in Gibson County, 2012

Ruins of Salem School in Gibson County, 2012

By far the most valuable resources we have found during this survey are the former students who attended these Rosenwald Schools. In addition to helping us confirm the physical location of the schools, they have given us insight into their experiences attending the school. All of these former students spoke of their fond memories of their school days and the value of the education they received.

Field work for the survey will resume in October 2014. With Sam Smith now enjoying his retirement, Sarah Levithol will assist with the survey as we attempt to locate the remainder of the Rosenwald School sites. As with previous survey projects our goal is to produce a published report of findings.

References Cited

Deutsch, Stephanie
2011    You Need a Schoolhouse, Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois.

Hoffschwelle, Mary S.
2006     The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Samuel D.
2006     “A Retrospective on 30 Years of Historic-Period Archaeological Site Survey.” Tennessee Division of Archaeology. Paper Presented at the South Central Historical Archaeology Conference, Memphis Tennessee, October 28, 2006.

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