DONALDSONVILLE, La. (WVUE) - One of the biggest advances in educating black children across the South in the early 20th Century happened because of the generosity of one of America’s most prominent businessmen. Thousands of schools were built in rural areas that previously had none, including one still standing today in Donaldsonville.
That’s where Darryl Hambrick runs the River Road African American Museum and uses the old schoolhouse to teach a history lesson.
The structure is a part of an amazing story, one that connected thousands of poor, rural children across the south – many of them African Americans – at a time when there were few opportunities for education.
“The building is a three-classroom building that was used to educate black [students] in the South during the 1930s,” Hambrick explained. “The blackboards you see on the wall, those are original. There was an old potbelly stove that saw in the middle of the floor in the wintertime. And in the summertime, or in the heated times, you would raise the windows.”
What makes the building so special it that it’s a Rosenwald School, one of the few such buildings still remaining in the United States. It was funded in part by Julius Rosenwald, then the president of Sears Roebuck, in partnership with Booker T. Washington.
“Booker T. Washington had a great idea, and Julius Rosenwald had the money,” Hambrick said.
Rosenwald was inspired to help after reading Washington’s work, according to Lenora Costa, the curator of Longue Vue House and Gardens – the former home of Rosenwald’s daughter.
“So, he reads Washington’s book and he realizes that there is this great need for education and opportunity,” Costa said. “He knew that just a little extra help could sometimes transform someone’s life. And so, when he reads Washington’s book, he basically wrote him a letter and said, ‘What do you need that I can help with?’”
The Rosenwald fund required that local communities help build the schools, and he required a buy-in from mostly white southern school boards.
“He would have given the rest, but he needed that small amount before they would actually build the school,” Costa said.
The Rosenwald schools – 5,000 of them – were build across 15 Southern states from Texas to Maryland. In Louisiana, there were 400 Rosenwald Schools built between 1913 and the early 1930s.
According to Hambrick, before the Rosenwald Schools came around, educational opportunities for people living in these areas were virtually nonexistent.
“In the rural South, there were no schools. There was no educational process,” Hambrick said.
Today, only a few structures remain. This one in Donaldsoneville – which was moved from St. James Parish – and another in the Plaisance community near Opelousas.
“They took education into their hands and made it something that was not controlled by the government, but was controlled by people in the community [who] wanted to make it accessible,” Hambrick said.
And the result of the vision of two men Julius Rosenwald and Rooker T. Washington, who knew the importance of teaching children – all children – about reading, writing and arithmetic.
Tours are available at the Rosenwald School located at the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, for more information visit their website here.