Modern Day Efforts Preserve Rosenwald Schools and Memories

African American Heritage | Grants | History

By Holly Walker

Often unused and sometimes forgotten, thousands of Rosenwald school buildings that opened doors to an education long denied to African Americans in the South are vanishing even as the memories of those who attended or worked on and in the schools are slipping away, too.

Second Union School in Goochland County, VA PHOTO BY Anthony Phelps
Second Union School in Goochland County, VA
PHOTO BY Anthony Phelps

In the era between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, Rosenwald schools provided critical educational opportunities to African Americans. More than 5,000 of these schools were built, including 367 in Virginia. The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that, throughout the South, only ten to twelve percent of the original structures remain standing today, and many of those are in need of major repair. In Virginia, the percentage is slightly higher—closer to thirty percent, according to Justin Sarafin, director of preservation initiatives and engagement with Preservation Virginia.

A recent project funded in part by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has helped to collect oral histories from alumni of the Rosenwald schools in Goochland County.   The work was conducted by scholars at John Tyler Community College (JTCC), including Alyce Miller, associate professor of history and Cris Silvent, assistant professor of art, along with Brian Daugherity, assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) with help from students at both JTCC and VCU.

“In the voices of people who attended these schools, you can hear the real and personal effects that unequal facilities had on children and the ways in which the African American community fought hard to acquire education opportunities for their children throughout Virginia in the 20th century,” says Miller.

Dr. Edward “Ted” Raspiller, president of JTCC, says the efforts individuals and communities made to gain access to education makes the Rosenwald schools project a natural fit for JTCC. He emphasized the role of the community college as an anchor within communities and as an institution focused on increasing educational access and opportunities to traditionally underserved populations. “The beginnings of Rosenwald schools are quite similar to those of community colleges, whereby it was a combined effort of state, private, and local community support to get each one started,” according to Raspiller, who spoke at a spring event that drew 75 people from across the Commonwealth to JTCC’s Chester campus.

Earlier this year, representatives from 16 different Rosenwald schools—including alumni, academics, students and history buffs—attended Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools, a symposium co-hosted by Preservation Virginia and JTCC. They drove from as far away as Bath County and the Northern Neck, eager to share stories, exchange ideas, and discuss successes and failures in their personal efforts to preserve the memories and legacy of these schools.

Attendees at the “Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools” symposium.
Attendees at the “Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools” symposium.

“Judging from the attendance at the event and the reception we’ve received from communities throughout the state, there is a real need for such a project,” declared Miller.

Gerrick Waters, a JTCC student who attended the symposium, agreed.

“I found the presentation interesting because there are several Rosenwald schools in the area where I grew up,” he said. “I was raised in Lancaster County, located in the Northern Neck of Virginia. My parents and grandparents all attended Rosenwald schools.”

Marc Wagner, Capital Regional office Director for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, called the event “inspiring” and “uplifting.”

“The meeting brought together one of the largest gatherings of Virginia Rosenwald School stakeholders that I have seen in one room to date. Through the strong encouragement of Preservation Virginia and JTCC, groups who hope to save these threatened [schools] are finding valuable resources,” he said.

“By identifying and, when possible, saving these schools and by preserving the stories of the people who relied on them, we are giving our students and all Virginians the opportunity to truly experience this important part of our history,” added Miller. In the semester that has followed the Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools event, Miller and Silvent have been assisting Sarafin and Preservation Virginia to map out the specifics of a multi-year, multi-phase preservation initiative that would empower individuals, groups and localities by providing them with the historic preservation tools and advice needed to help save the schools in their communities.

For more information about these Rosenwald schools projects, contact Alyce Miller with JTCC at amiller@jtcc.edu, or 804-706-5254, or Justin Sarafin, with Preservation Virginia, at jsarafin@preservationvirginia.org, or 804-648-1889, ext. 317.