The scene is from Aviva Kempner’s 2015 documentary about philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, chief executive of Sears, Roebuck and Co., who partnered with African Americans throughout the South to build more than 5,300 schools. More than 600,000 Black students attended them.
What keeps the film relevant with the passage of time is not just Rosenwald’s uncommon commitment to social justice. It’s also a question raised by that classroom scene: How did some of the poorest Black kids in one of the most racist regions of the nation overcome their exclusion from the educational system?
Poet and writer Maya Angelou, who is featured in the documentary, answers the question by highlighting the rituals and traditions that Black communities relied on to compensate for Jim Crow inequities in education.
“Black teachers took such pride in Black students, and the Black community took such pride in smart students,” Angelou said. “A student who made A’s would be marched from one church to another. And people would say, ‘Now, here is brother so-and-so’s son Johnny, and he got all A’s this year. Now, Johnny, stand up.’ And even if he didn’t belong to that church, people would still stand up and say, ‘Praise the Lord,’ ‘Bless his heart.’ Their pride was an encouragement to continue. With the larger society saying to us, ‘You cannot,’ we were thinking, ‘Yes, we could.’ ”
This communal embrace was vital to the success of the Rosenwald schools and many other all-Black schools during that time. When the Ku Klux Klan burned down a school, the Black community rallied and rebuilt it. As an antidote to racist propaganda about Black inferiority, Black school officials worked extra hard to make sure Black children never doubted their worth.
In the documentary, Tony-winning director George Wolfe, whose mother was a principal at a Rosenwald school, described her typical school day.
“School was over at 2:30, but my mother and most of the teachers would stay there until 6 because they’d be doing bulletin boards and planning. They were ridiculously hard-working and gave everything they had to make sure we were fortified and confident.”
Fast forward to the present, and the educational challenges that many Black children face are just as daunting.
Many were already in low-performing schools with limited resources — but progress in closing the education gap was being made. The coronavirus pandemic upended much of that, and academic gains for Black students are at risk of being reversed.
School systems launched remote-learning plans with days’ notice, but many of the poorest students had no access to computers. And those with computers often had little access to reliable Internet service.
Social networks and access to nutrition and health services have been cut off amid nationwide school closures.
Some students haven’t been heard from by their teachers since schools closed. Months have passed, and the students seem to have disappeared.
Maybe this is the moment we take a page from the past.
In Kempner’s documentary, Lester Mae Hill, a nurse, recalled how the community came together to support the Rosenwald school near her home in Cairo, Ill.
“Twice a month, we’d have a fundraiser for the school, and everybody participated — even people who didn’t have children,” she said. “We all worked together.”
Black parents and teachers knew that education was the way to freedom.
People like Rosenwald, the son of German Jewish immigrants, knew it, too. He supported the efforts of Booker T. Washington, founder of what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama, and Harvard scholar W.E.B. Du Bois to improve the lives of Black people by making sure they had access to education.
As Washington put it, “Having been fortified at Tuskegee by education of mind, skill of hand . . . and a spirit of independence, the student is sent out to become a center of influence and light in showing the masses of our people in the Black Belt of the South how to lift themselves up.”
Kempner’s film helps remind us how we got this far: the relentless pursuit of liberation through education and the optimism that such a belief requires.
Rosenwald used his wealth to help further civil rights causes, believing that you “give while you live.” He said he could identify with Black people because of parallels between anti-Semitism that his parents experienced in Europe and racism in the United States.
Sadly, his reasons for helping still exist. But so does our collective ability to help those with the greatest need.
As it was in the 1930s, this may be the time for the community to come together to embrace those students who need it the most. We need churches and colleges, business owners and educators to rally to build a new educational system — one that invests not only money, but also time.
Can we rise to the occasion? If not, the past may not be as distant as we had hoped.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.