Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Julian Bond as an alumnus of the Rosenwald schools. It also incorrectly stated that Booker T. Washington persuaded Julius Rosenwald to donate seed money for black YMCAs and YWCAs. Rosenwald donated the money before meeting Washington. This version has been updated.
The tidy shingled schoolhouse, erected in 1927, sits back from Central Avenue in Capitol Heights, Md., nestled in a copse of trees. Originally consisting of two classrooms for seven grades, the building was officially shackled with the ignoble name of Colored School No. 1 in Election District 13, but it came to be known by its proud graduates as Ridgeley, for the area where it stood.
“You were expected to grow up and be a credit to your race,” says La Verne Gray, sitting at a wooden desk in her former classroom, which is flooded with light from a wall of windows. Her first cousin, Corinthia Ridgley Boone, 80, stamped her feet in excitement recalling the glory of the school, where she excelled as a student.
“Oh, yes, you were expected to be somebody,” Boone says. “Our teachers wanted us to be contributors to society.”
The cousins remember when congested Central Avenue was a two-lane dirt road and their town was thick with tobacco fields. Gray loved playing dodgeball beside the school. Boone was a ferocious reader. May Day was a glorious celebration, the girls in their starched white dresses, the boys in crisp shirts, weaving crepe paper around the maypole.
Ridgeley was a Rosenwald school, one of nearly 5,000 built in the rural South between 1912 and 1932 to educate black children, a revolutionary program largely forgotten except to its legions of alumni. Prince George’s County was rural then, certainly Southern, and home to 27 of the schools.
During the early 1930s, one in every three black children in the South attended a Rosenwald institution.
Maya Angelou and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) are among the alumni of the constellation of schools created by the partnership between former slave and Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck catalogue magnate Julius Rosenwald. The schools are celebrated in the documentary “Rosenwald,” by Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner, which opened Friday at three area theaters. Mostly shuttered in 1954 upon desegregation, many Rosenwald schools were lost to neglect or ruin, but many, such as Ridgeley, have been restored as cultural museums and community centers so that their exceptional legacy can be shared.
“Education was seen as dangerous,” says Washington Post columnist and Rosenwald alumnus Eugene Robinson in the film. “White Southerners wanted to keep it out of black people’s hands,” preferring to “keep them working in the fields.”
Often consisting of just two or three classrooms, the schools were the heart of their communities, cradles of pride built on land often donated by black farmers. The schools were the children’s world, and all they knew of learning. As writer and poet Angelou, who died last year, says in the film: “I thought my school was grand.”
Lillian Aylor, 76, and Irene Timbers, 84, attended Scrabble School in rural Castleton, Va., in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a one-room schoolhouse with a divider to separate it into two classes for seven grades.
Erected in 1922 among the corn and wheat fields, in a community where formal education often ended after seventh grade, Scrabble was the first school for black children in Rappahannock County. Its motto: “We can if we think we can.”
Once a week, soup was cooked on a coal stove. Teachers were adamant that students learn the three Rs, as well as cooking, canning, sewing and carpentry in preparation for a productive adult life.
“We had to do our cursive writing. I remember there was no getting away without doing it,” says Aylor, sitting in her former classroom. “I was a very, very shy person. My teacher made me do recitations to get over it.”
Aylor and Timbers were among the first members of their families to graduate from high school.
“Rosenwald is the greatest American philanthropist you’ve never heard of,” filmmaker Kempner says. She recalls attending a talk by Julian Bond, whose father worked for the Rosenwald Fund, a number of years ago, “and when he mentioned that the Sears president helped build 5,000 schools, I almost fell out of my chair. I knew I was going to do this film.” The civil rights champion, who died Aug. 15, appears in “Rosenwald” and served as “my main consultant and became very dear to me,” Kempner says.
Rosenwald, who never finished high school, devised an elegant plan to foster involvement in the project, He was an early pioneer of seed money and matching funding. He would finance a third of the schools’ construction, providing the spark. The white-controlled school district would contribute a third of the costs, and the black community would provide the final third, often through sweat equity, becoming stakeholders in the enterprise.
Ridgeley was built on two acres provided by Gray and Boone’s grandmother, Mary Eliza Dyson Ridgley (the school name is spelled differently from the name of the long-standing Prince George’s family), while many family members, including an aunt and both of Gray’s parents, taught there. Gray’s 94-year-old mother, Mildred Ridgley Gray, helped spearhead the school’s rehabilitation.
What churches were on Sunday, the Rosenwald schools became Monday through Friday, the centerpiece and reflection of the community. Ultimately, Rosenwald donated $4.3 million for schools in 15 states, the equivalent of $75 million today.
“These schools were in very, very rural areas, where many African American kids did not go to school. If they went to school, they went to a very ramshackle building,” says Washington writer Stephanie Deutsch, author of the Rosenwald history book, “You Need a Schoolhouse,” and wife of a Rosenwald great-grandson. “These schools were new and modern, with big tall windows, and lots of light streaming in. They felt special, because they were new and they were theirs.” (Washington is also home to Rosenwald great-grandson David Stern, son of the late philanthropist Philip Stern.)
Sears Roebuck was the Amazon.com of its day, celebrated for its “wish book,” a catalogue selling everything “from cradle to grave.” Initially, Rosenwald wanted to build the schools using Sears model homes. Washington and Tuskegee architect Robert Robinson Taylor, the great-grandfather of White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, convinced him that the schools should be designed and built by African Americans, with huge windows as their hallmark.
Many students recall the light that transformed the buildings into literal venues of enlightenment. “I couldn’t wait to get to school in the morning,” Boone says.
“We knew our schools were special, providing a place for us, an opportunity,” says retired Washington teacher Mae Williams, 71, an alumna of two Rosenwald schools in North Carolina who volunteers at Ridgeley.
“I didn’t realize the difference between black and white schools until I was in seventh grade,” says Aylor, sitting at Scrabble, restored in 2009 as a senior center and cultural site. “I didn’t understand why we would play together with the white children after school and on the weekends but couldn’t go to school together.”
The schools were separate and not always equal. In the back of a Ridgeley classroom, a table was stacked with books to encourage reading, many tattered discards from the white schools. Boone recalls picking up one volume and recoiling in horror at text that equated black people with monkeys. Outhouses were a given; one for boys, one for girls. Indoor plumbing didn’t arrive at Scrabble until 1961.
Like many Rosenwald schools, Ridgeley closed in 1954 with the desegregation following the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racially segregated schools unequal and unconstitutional. But Scrabble was in Virginia, home of “massive resistance” against integration, and it remained an all-black school for another 13 years. Scrabble finally integrated for a year before being shuttered for decades, left to rot and ruin.
In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the Rosenwald schools “a National Treasure,” placing them on the most endangered historic places list. The trust launched the Rosenwald Schools Initiative to help communities restore the buildings into historic cultural sites. Ridgeley’s renovation totaled $1.2 million (the school’s original cost: $5,300) and required seven years and support from a consortium of regional organizations.
Rosenwald, who died in 1932, was a pragmatist. His motto, according to the documentary, was: “Give while you live.” Beyond the schools, he donated seed money for the creation of black YMCAs and YWCAs, safe places in cities for young blacks to stay in the era of segregation. The Sears titan helped construct more than 20 buildings, including, at the request of President William Howard Taft, the Washington YWCA on 12th Street NW, now the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage.
Rosenwald also bestowed grants, a precursor of the MacArthur Foundation genius grants, to many of the 20th century’s greatest black artists and innovators, including opera singer Marian Anderson (to study in Europe), painter Jacob Lawrence (helping fund his “Migration Series”), poet Langston Hughes, historian John Hope Franklin, writer James Baldwin, choreographer and dancer Katherine Dunham and photographer Gordon Parks.
Half of all Rosenwald’s charitable gifts went to African Americans. The schools were, in many ways, his quieter but most powerful contribution. He didn’t like to affix his name to buildings, but he used it to inspire others to give. Although his portrait often hung in schools that he had funded, alongside those of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, many students, such as Williams, who attended a Rosenwald school conference in June, say: “I had no idea who he was until much later.”
Small schoolhouses such as Ridgeley were a laboratory for the wider world beyond the rural South. “The school prepared me for higher education,” says Leonora Gross, a mathematical statistician who became the first high-ranking black woman administrator at the Census Bureau. “You were taught to learn all you can. What you know cannot be taken from you. They can take away your opportunity, we were told, but they can’t take away what you know.”
The Ridgley cousins, who were instructed to become a credit to their race and contributors to society, worked to do so. Gray became an environmental planner with the Maryland Department of Planning.
Boone, the child who couldn’t wait to get to school, became an educator and earned an undergraduate and master’s degree at Bowie State and a doctorate in philosophy and counseling at Union University in California. “This school was ours,” she says. “One of our core values was you helped each other up.”
Aylor became co-innkeeper at the Inn at Mt. Vernon Farm in rural Virginia. Two years ago, she was named one of the Rappahannock News’ citizens of the year, cited for her lasting contributions to the community.