RVA HISTORY: Schools Are for Learning

by Jon Baliles

The effort to save the old Richmond Community Hospital (RCH) from Virginia Union’s wrecking ball raises an interesting debate about recognizing history, remembering history, and benefitting by learning from history. Especially when one program is established that then becomes part of a bigger effort and very especially when it is used to overcome something as insidious as segregation. It is also an example of why saving monuments to black history is so important instead of sacrificing them for a revenue stream from 200 apartments.

This story, in a roundabout way, ties in with the opportunity Virginia Union has to create and model a historic preservation program like the successful program at Tuskegee University in Alabama — which is the only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) to have such a program. Doing something like that at VUU centered around the RCH as a starting point and building block could have an incalculable impact for generations of students to come.

The architecture program created at Tuskegee in 1893 (which led to the historic preservation program) was so lasting and impactful it quickly became a main contributor in educating almost 700,000 black children across the south for decades in what were known as The Rosenwald Schools.

As segregation took hold across the south in the early 20th Century, public education in black communities was not funded by state legislatures; any funding provided was so small as to be irrelevant. Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington partnered with the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald, in 1912 to create and build more than 5,900 schools and support buildings in 15 states across the south (see map).

According to Encyclopedia Virginia, the Rosenwald Schools enrolled nearly 700,000 African American children in rural, isolated communities with state-of-the-art facilities. In Virginia the program built 382 schools and support buildings in 79 counties.

The effort was a partnership match; the Rosenwald Fund provided up to half of the necessary funds and the rest came from a local school board and/or community efforts and funding. Some people or communities deeded land for schools or provided materials and labor as their contribution. The buildings, all of which had to meet an established set of modern safety and sanitation standards and were to follow one of several pre-established architectural plans, were all designed in 1915 by the architecture professors at the Tuskegee Institute.

A companion book was published by 1920 entitled Community School Plans that included recommendations for almost every aspect of a school’s physical development — location, construction materials, blackboard and desk placement, paint colors, and even the types of plants that should beautify school grounds. The principles set forth for Rosenwald schools influenced school architects throughout the United States, in communities that were black and white, rural and urban.

The program was originally based at Tuskegee, but grew so fast it moved to Nashville in 1920 (Booker T. Washington died in 1915). Later, John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board paid for agents at the state level to secure commitments from county school officials and submit to Nashville annual wish lists of the numbers and types of schools desired. By 1928, one of every five schools for blacks in the South was a Rosenwald school.

Terry Menefee Gau at VPM News ran a story last March that featured Mozelle Booker, a former student of the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Palmyra, VA. She said that the difference between learning in a one-room schoolhouse and a Rosenwald School was vast.

They were better built, and you could bring all the kids together in one building. And you had better teachers,” said Booker. “You had people with degrees at that time.… It was a real step up.

Gail Smith attended Second Union Rosenwald School in Fife [Goochland County] from 1953-1959. “Coming to this two-room school — I’ll never forget it. It was the best years of my life,” she said. “Because of what I was taught here and learned here, I moved on up. … Second Union School gave me the initiative to do something, make something.”

Many of the schools remained in operation even after the 1954 Brown v Board Supreme Court decision as Virginia’s Massive Resistance fought desegregation for another decade and many schools didn’t integrate. After Virginia was forced to comply or lose federal funding, many of the Rosenwald Schools closed or fell into disrepair or were later torn down. But according to Gau, about a third of the schools are still standing. Some have been repurposed into other uses and Preservation Virginia has been working to restore the remaining buildings and preserve the history those institutions hold.

Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources partnered with Preservation Virginia, and found, as of August 2019, that 126 of the 382 Rosenwald Schools and auxiliary buildings in Virginia were still standing and 256 had been demolished (see more on PV’s website). You can also learn more about what Preservation Virginia found in its research.  They have a fantastic web page with information and an interactive map of each school surveyed.

Below is a two-minute video of a Preservation Virginia event held in 2018 at the Moton Museum in Farmville after they did a two-year architectural survey of Virginia’s Rosenwald schools in partnership with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. It is highly recommended.

To bring this story fully around the roundabout, the establishment of an architectural school and historic preservation program at Tuskegee was a driving force in the education of hundreds of thousands of black children in the south. What Booker T. Washington set in motion became the foundation of careers of untold thousands of people across the south and students who became doctors, lawyers, community leaders, teachers, police and firemen, architects, and on and on and on.

Virginia Union has the chance to do something like that here with an historic preservation program in one of the most historic cities in the United States. As mentioned in Sunday’s edition, VUU has the opportunity to start something that, in a city and state with as much history as Richmond and Virginia, would take about five seconds before organizations and groups and corporations start lining up to be a part of such a program right here at VUU.

As an HBCU with such a program in the state where local and state historic preservation tax credits were practically invented and used every day, the possibilities are virtually endless — partnerships, funding, careers, apprenticeships, hands-on experience — all of it.

And it’s not as though there is a lack of opportunity in this field in Richmond, in Virginia, and across the country and beyond. There is so much history we didn’t know about, or don’t know about, or haven’t known enough about until recent years — and there is so much more to be told and so much more to be preserved. What kind of legacy can we create that starts with the Richmond Community Hospital and Virginia Union that would be shared for the benefit and education of current and future generations?

Compare that to the total lack of any lasting or meaningful impact on future generations that would be passed on by building 200 apartments that look like they could be in anywhere-suburbia USA.

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You will be able to see the upcoming exhibit about the Rosenwald Schools at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC), opening on May 25.

According to the VMHC: The exhibition is derived from Feiler’s book, A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America, which includes eighty-five duotone images and an introduction by the late Congressman John Lewis, who attended a Rosenwald school in Alabama.

Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.