Director of Freedom Rides Museum Speaks on Rosenwald Schools

Published 10:10 am Friday, February 16, 2024

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VALLEY — The director of the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery was the guest speaker at Thursday’s Lunch N Learn program at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library. The topic was entitled “How Firm a Foundation: Alabama’s Historic Rosenwald and Equalization Schools.”

Located inside a historic Greyhound bus station, the Freedom Rides Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a site on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which has more than 100 destinations in 14 states.

On May 20, 1961, the Freedom Riders stopped off at this station prepared to meet with mob violence with non-violence and courage. Some had prepared farewell letters and wills for their loved ones back home. Their goal was to help end racial segregation in public transportation. Several of them were seriously injured when attacked by the mob, among them future Congressman John Lewis. John Siegen-
thaler, an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was knocked unconscious. The Freedom Riders were both black and white, male and female, and none of them were older than 22. The angry mob that met them getting off the bus attacked them with iron pipes and baseball bats.

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Visitors to the museum can learn much about the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s and the Freedom Rides across the Deep South in the early 1960s. In her presentation, Walker talked about two movements that preceded that. She said that the Rosenwald School program has always been seen in a positive light, but the lesser-known movement known as school equalization was something far darker.

The Rosenwald school building program was a Progressive Era program funded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. He partnered with African American educator and activist Booker T. Washington, first working with Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and then forming an independent foundation to manage the school program.

At one time, more than 5,000 Rosenwald schools were located across the Deep South states. Many were in real areas where opportunities to get any kind of an education were scarce for African American children.

Before these schools were built, those children who did attend school of- ten did so in living rooms and front yards. Julius Rosenwald was a Jewish immigrant who had come to the U.S. with his family to escape the antisemitism they had experienced in Europe. By the turn of the 20th century, Rosenwald had risen in the business world to become president and CEO of Sears Roebuck. He was one of the wealthiest men in the country.

Walker said she sometimes has trouble when trying to explain to younger people how big Sears used to be. “I tell them it was the Amazon for its day,” she said. They could sell you almost anything from a casket to a home.”

With Tuskegee being the base of operation for the Rosenwald school program, Alabama had most of these buildings in its earlier days.

“Booker T. Washington had built 46 schools before he met Julius Rosenwald in 1911,” Walker said, explaining that Rosenwald helped him greatly expand on something he’d already started. The first two Rosenwald schools were built only a few miles apart from what’s today Alabama Highway 14 between Loachapoka, in Lee County, and Notasulga, in Macon County.

By the 1920s, Lee and Chambers counties had more of these schools than any other counties in Alabama. They both had 19. By contrast, the state’s most populous county, Jefferson, had one. It was located on the campus of Miles College, one of Alabama’s 16 Historic Black Colleges & Universities. Many of them were located next to churches that still exist. Walker read a list of those locations in Chambers County. They included Bethel, Canaan, Chambers County Training School, Five Points, Greenwood, High Pine, Macedonia, Mitchell Springs, New Canaan, New Hope, Rehobeth, Rocky Branch, St. John’s, Sandy Level, Sardis, Shawmut, S.L. Smith Industrial, (oddly enough) Titanic and Unity.

Located near Fredonia, the New Hope School is the only one that’s almost fully intact and looks like it did when it was built in 1915. A local foundation is heading up a continuing effort to have it restored. An open house will be taking place there on Saturday, Feb. 24. Between noon and 4 p.m. EST that day, everyone is invited to come out and see this historic building, which is on the National Register.

The era of equalization followed the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision which held that school segregation was permissible providing the schools were equal. The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education reversed that, ruling that “separate is inherently unequal” and had to be corrected “with all deliberate speed.”

Efforts to integrate what had long been the all-white schools of the Deep South had been met with violence in places like Little Rock, Arkansas and Birmingham, Alabama, where in 1957 Civil Rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth attempted to enroll black students at then all-white Phillips High School. They were beaten and turned away.

Desegregation eventually came to the region due to federal court orders.

Two former classmates at the University of Alabama Law School, Governor George Wallace and Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., were on opposite sides of this conflict. Wallace became famous for saying “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his 1963 inaugural speech. He lived up to a promise he made to stand in the schoolhouse door should there ever be an effort to integrate his alma mater. He did stand in the door that year but quickly stepped aside when the feds asked him to.

A court ruling that came out of the desegregation effort, Lee v. Macon, still affects many school systems in Alabama. Chambers County had to deal with it in its effort to build a new consolidated high school. Walker said she wanted everyone to understand that the Rosenwald School story and school equalization are two very different topics.

The Rosenwald story is one of prominent white and black leaders working together to help impoverished people overcome their plight to have a better life. School equalization involved court fights, federal government intervention, and resistance that many times became violent.

“It’s a difficult subject, but it needs to be addressed,” she said.