February is Black History Month, which focuses on highlighting events related to African-American history. One of the most important, and at the same time least known, initiative of last century aiming at improving the education of African-Americans was the Rosenwald Schools project.
Rosenwald Schools were built thanks to the Rosenwald Fund and were an essential part of black history. These schools improved the education of African-Americans in the South.
Coffee County was home to two Rosenwald Schools.
Booker T. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, one of the founders of Sears Roebuck, initiated a project to build schools for African-American children in the South. The initiative has been one of the most important projects to advance education for blacks in the last century. By 1928, more than 30 percent of the rural black children were served by Rosenwald Schools, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In 1912, Washington shared his plan for building the schools across the segregated South with Rosenwald and asked him for financial support. Rosenwald agreed to match funds raised for black school buildings by each community.
Thanks to that partnership, 5,300 schools, vocational shops and teachers’ homes opened doors across 15 states in the period between 1912 and 1932.
Two of those schools were located in Coffee County – one in Manchester, the Rosenwald School, and one in Tullahoma, Davidson Academy.
The Rosenwald School in Manchester was located on Rye Street. According to the database of Fisk University Library, which preserves the Julius Rosenwald Fund archives, the historic name of the school was Manchester School. However, it was known by locals as the Rosenwald School. The school was built for three teachers and its first budget year was 1927/1928. Two acres came with the building, and the total cost of the project was $5,063.
“At one point of time, funds were set up for schools for the blacks,” said Joanna Lewis, office manager of the Coffee County Historical Society. “They were called Rosenwald Schools.”
The building of the Rosenwald School in Manchester is no longer at the original location of the school, said Lewis. After the school closed its doors, the building was cut in half and used for an apartment building, which is now located at Kefauver Street in Manchester (behind Peoples Bank).
“Originally, the school was located at the end of Rye Street in Manchester,” Lewis said. “That community was more of a black community than some of the other areas of the city. That’s where the Rosenwald School was built.”
Edmonia Murray remembers
Murray is one of the students who attended the Rosenwald School in Manchester in the 1930s.
“I was born in Manchester in 1932,” Murray said. “During those days, the parents could take the children to school a little earlier. So I went there when I was three years old. It was like a babysitting place at first. At that time, they just let me sit in the classroom.”
Murray started first grade when she was five. The school was k-8.
“We walked to school because we didn’t have cars in the family,” said Murray.
Murray recalled some of her teachers.
“I remember Professor Malone, Mr. Harris, Ms. Riche and Ms. Whitaker,” Murray said.
John Malone and Beatrice Riche are listed as teachers in black schools during 1936, according to records provided by the Coffee County Historical Society.
“We had a cafeteria, and the lady that was the cook was Hazel Hill, who was a cousin of mine,” Murray said. “We had to pay for our lunches. We didn’t get any help from the city or anybody else.”
Some children couldn’t afford to bring lunch.
“Some did, some didn’t,” Murray said. “Sometimes, we didn’t have any lunch at all.”
Sometimes, the kids helped with preparing lunch, which meant a free snack for them.
“Professor Harris sold peanut butter and crackers to the kids for a few pennies,” Murray said. “I was one of the kids that helped make the peanut butter and crackers.”
Murray enjoyed remembering the music band she was part of.
“We had a band and we used a wash board,” Murray said. “We used a wash board and a bucket for a drum, and we had a stick that we used to beat on it. We did that in Ms. Riche’s class. She taught the music classes.”
Murray said the students sang a lot of spiritual music and, regularly, performed plays.
“I really enjoyed school,” Murray said. “We had a place to go. We didn’t go to many other places anyway.”
The school day started at 8 a.m. and lasted until 3 p.m.
“We always had prayer in the mornings,” Murray said. “Everybody went to the auditorium and we would have a prayer and sing before we would go to our classes.”
There were a couple of not so pleasant memories for Murray.
One of the unpleasant things Murray remembered was having outside toilets.
She also recalled the deeds of one of her fellow students, who she jokingly called a “mischievous boy.”
“One of the boys hid one of my galoshes – which are like rubber boots – in the principal’s pocket,” said Murray laughing. “I will never forget that.”
After Murray graduated from the Rosenwald School in Manchester, she attended Davidson Academy in Tullahoma.
“We were bused to Tullahoma.” Murray said. “I went to Davidson Academy for four years. C.D. Stamps was the principal there. We had a choir, we sang, and we had a home-ec class, where we made clothes and learned how to sew.”
Lorene McReynolds remembers
McReynolds, of Manchester, also attended both the Rosenwald School in Manchester and Davidson Academy.
“I was born in 1928, and I am the oldest black lady in Manchester that was born and raised here,” McReynolds said.
She started going to the Rosenwald School at the age of five.
“We didn’t have kindergarten; they called it primer,” McReynolds said. “Half of the school year we went to the primer; then we went to first grade.”
After graduating from the Rosenwald School, McReynolds had to go to Tullahoma to attend high school.
Davidson Academy was the only black high school in Coffee County.
About 30 students attended the high school, recalled McReynolds.
The historic name of the Rosenwald School in Tullahoma was Davidson Academy. The school was built following a four-teacher plan. According to Fisk University Library, the first budget year of Davidson Academy was 1927/1928. The school had two acres of land, and it cost $12,600.
McReynolds said the commute to school wasn’t always fun.
“The first year, we went in a regular school bus,” McReynolds said. “Then, the driver went to the army.”
To help students go to school, a local man transformed his truck.
“Henry Riche, who had a pickup truck, built seats on the back of his truck and we rode in that,” McReynolds said.
Henry Riche is listed as one of the black teachers in Coffee County in 1936, according to records provided by the Coffee County Historical Society.
There was enough space at the back of the truck for all Manchester kids to ride in it, said McReynolds.
“Ten kids or so would be there,” McReynolds said. “There were seats on each side, and it was closed at the top.”
Riche took the kids to school for about a year, said McReynolds.
“During junior and senior year, we didn’t have a bus at all,” McReynolds said. “We had to go to school on our own, which was wrong, of course. Sometimes, we would catch a mail bus that carried the mail from Manchester to Tullahoma.”
Most seats of the bus, except six seats at the front, were removed.
“They had taken the seats out and used the space for the mail,” McReynolds said. “And, of course, if any white people wanted to ride the bus, they got the seats, and we sat on the mail bags.”
McReynolds and her friends had to pay 35 cents to ride the bus.
“That was a lot of money for a lot of us,” she said. “We had to leave very early in the morning – it was still dark – because the mail bus didn’t have a set schedule. Sometimes, we would be too early for school; sometimes, we would be late. A lot of times, we didn’t get to school at all.”
Ending ‘separate but equal’
The landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ended legal segregation in public schools. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court changed the path of history with its ruling. With a unanimous decision, the court overturned provisions of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had allowed for “separate but equal” public facilities, including public schools. The Brown v. Board of Education decision declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” according to history.com. The decision ended state-sponsored segregation.
Though in 1954, Rosenwald Schools became obsolete, preserving their history is essential.
According to records provided by the Coffee County Historical Society, the Rosenwald School in Manchester closed its doors in 1957. The original building was moved, cut in half and is now used for an apartment complex in Manchester and is located on Kefauver Street behind Peoples Bank.
The C.D. Stamps Community Center in Tullahoma stands where Davidson Academy used to be and is named after its longtime principal.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
However, enforcing the law had its challenges in some areas.
And although full implementation of school desegregation in Coffee County took over a decade, in his book “Coffee County Then and Now 1983,” Basil B. McMahan claims that desegregation went smoothly in Coffee County because of “the continued good relationship of the two races.”
Also in 1964, the mayor of Manchester and the Coffee County Board of Education made a public statement to the effect that in all schools, there would be no discrimination due to race, creed or national origin. In 1965, the U.S. Department of Education issued to the county a certificate of compliance based on county’s reports and performance.
Preserving the history
Despite the significance of the Rosenwald Schools, many people are not familiar with their impact on the nation’s history.
Organizations such as Fisk University and The National Trust for Historic Preservation are working to preserve the Rosenwald buildings and their history. In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Rosenwald Schools on the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list and launched an initiative to help preserve and rehabilitate the aging school buildings.
Dr. Jessie Carney Smith, dean of Fisk University Library, attended a Rosenwald School as a child. She values the historical preservation of the Rosenwald Schools, both for personal and professional reasons.
Smith was born in Greensboro, North Carolina.
From 1935 to 1942, she attended Mount Zion School, a Rosenwald School in Mount Zion, North Carolina.
“At first, our school had two rooms but two more were added,” Smith said. “It was brick, sat on a hill and looked imposing. Each classroom accommodated two grades, which meant that I learned a lot in both grades. I loved all of our teachers, except one.”
Once a year, the students had a field day, said Smith, and they engaged in outdoor sports activities.
Smith said she loved the school library but wishes the students were allowed to go there more often. They could attend the library once a month, and their visit was limited to one hour.
The community fully supported the school and attended events organized by the students, said Smith.
After Smith went to high school, her appreciation of the education she received at the Rosenwald School grew.
“I realized that our training was superior to that of our high school classmates who attended schools in Greensboro,” Smith said.
Smith said Rosenwald Schools have a rich history as both educational sites and centers of activities in the African-American communities.
“So many people are unaware that (these schools) existed, or they are just starting to learn about them,” Smith said. “The schools raised the educational and cultural levels of our communities, and they were a fine example of what could be developed with local and Rosenwald funds. Those who know about the work of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington will appreciate the value of the schools.”
Rosenwald buildings need to be preserved as historic and cultural centers in black communities during the first few decades of 20th century, said Smith.
“I am proud of the Rosenwald collection that we have at Fisk University, especially images of the schools and important facts about them,” Smith said. “It is always our pleasure to make these materials available to researchers. These materials are our most heavily-used materials by visitors.”
Elena Cawley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.