RRAAM remembers pioneers of black education

Visitors tour the newly opened Rosenwald School exhibit in Donaldsonville last Saturday for the Open House event.

The River Road African American Museum was founded by Kathe Hambrick Jackson in 1996 on a vision she had. Now that vision has expanded into the revealing of a shared vision between two men in the early 1900s - Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington.

The RRAAM hosted an Open House event Saturday remembering the Louisiana “Rosenwald Schools” that Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington ignited to educate young African Americans.

The St. James School Board donated a building to the RRAAM that represents one of the schools and the National Trust certified it as a “Rosenwald School.” The schools were part of the Central Agricultural School Program that Booker started and Rosenwald helped fund, according to River Road African American Museum Board President Darryl Gissel.

Gissel explained many people know of Booker T. Washington but don’t fully understand the partnership that he built with Julius Rosenwald. Booker T. Washington, America’s prominent African American educator, met with Julius Rosenwald around 1911. Julius Rosenwald was the son of a German Jewish immigrant and was the president of Sears Roebuck, which at that point was the largest retail operation in the world.

Rosenwald and Booker shared the vision that the only way African American children were going to gain the full benefits of citizenship in America after emancipation was through education, according to Gissel. They both believed very much in self-reliance and it was a bond that continued throughout their relationship.

“The community is very fortunate to have the school,” Gissel said.

Booker T. Washington’s great granddaughter, Robin Washington Banks, was presented as a speaker at the Open House where she explained the life of her great grandfather.

According to Washington Banks, Julius Rosenwald and his wife were impressed by what they had seen in Booker T. Washington’s schools, that he had begun on his own in Tuskegee, Alabama.

She said Julius Rosenwald asked Booker T. Washington if he had $25,000 to distribute among institutions, which are offshoots of Tuskegee in doing similar work, how would he divide it. Booker T. Washington told him it would be a “God send,” according to Washington Banks.

She explained Booker T. Washington received a gift of $25,000 and after doing what he said he’d do with it in Tuskegee he had some left over. In September of 1911, he proposed the experiment called the “Rosenwald School project,” according to Washington Banks.

She said there was a criteria each school had to meet such as an approved design by an architect, a manager with impeccable character, thoroughly planned for and well worked out with no mistakes made.

Even after Booker T. Washington’s death in November of 1915, until 1932 Rosenwald schools continued to sprout up from Texas to Maryland - some 5,338 plus schools.

“I believe his contributions were many, but I believe there is one that stands out above all others and that was his desire and work to build institutions that put people and communities on their feet,” Washington Banks said.

On behalf on Julius Rosenwald, his great-great grandson, William Hess was able to reflect on the stories he heard as a child growing up.

“Together I think they made magic,” Hess said about Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald’s work. “I am constantly moved everyday to remember that today in the Orleans Parish there is still a Rosenwald School, it’s not the building but it’s the name.”

He said from Donaldsonville, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and all the communities along the river, 400 schools in one little state is “just amazing and is an amazing source of pride.”

Jeanne Cyriaque, African American Programs Coordinator, is part of the movement called the “Initiative to Save Rosenwald Schools.” She said less than 20 percent of the schools remain today and that Hambrick Jackson has done an “excellent job in the rehabilitation of the historic building.”

“I’m really glad to be present today and I hope the enthusiasm of what she has accomplished so far will result in additional participation by the community in helping her restore the interior part of the building.”