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Filson kicks off initiative to preserve Black history with Rosenwald schools exhibit

“A Better Life for Their Children,” a photo exhibit on Rosenwald schools at Filson Historical Society.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
“A Better Life for Their Children,” a photo exhibit on Rosenwald schools at Filson Historical Society.

Last week, the Filson Historical Society announced the African American History Initiative to preserve the stories of Black people in Louisville, Southern Indiana and the Ohio Valley.

The Filson Historical Society launched the African American History Initiative, which will focus on preserving histories of Black people in Louisville, Southern Indiana and the Ohio Valley.

The initiative, which aims at filling gaps in existing historical records of African American communities, will bring in a dedicated curator of African American history with the support of a $3.5 million dollar endowment.

It was announced last Friday alongside the launch of “A Better Life for Their Children,” a photo exhibit on Rosenwald schools, which were segregation-era schools for Black children in the American South.

The exhibit details the collaboration between Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald and civil rights leader and educator Booker T. Washington. They built nearly 5,000 schools for African American children who didn’t have access to well-funded public school education in the 1920s.

Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington collaborated to build nearly 5,000 schools for Black children across the South.
Tyler J. Franklin
Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington collaborated to build nearly 5,000 schools for Black children across the South.

“Education is intimately tied to the American middle class and the American dream. There's no better illustration of that than the Rosenwald schools program coming out of the end of the Civil War,” said the exhibit’s curator Andrew Feiler.

The collaboration between Rosenwald and Washington was a historic example of African American and Jewish solidarity, and Feiler said everything from the ideation to architecture of these schools was a testament to upholding African American agency.

“They would reach out to Black communities of the South and count their contributions in the form of cash, land, material or labor to build the schools. It was a hand up because it was so respectful and engaging the Black community as a partner in their full progress,” he said.

Feiler called the architecture of Rosenwald schoolhouses “progressive.”

From the colors of walls and movable blackboards to creating well-ventilated schoolhouses, Feiler said credit goes to Robert Robinson Taylor, the first African American MIT graduate and the first Black accredited architect.

“These schools closed this Black-white education gap that existed, and set up the capacity for what became America’s Civil Rights Movement. It demonstrates the power of education, and that’s the heart of the story,” he said.

After Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that declared race-based segregation in schools as unconstitutional, Rosenwald schools began to consolidate with white schools over time, rendering them obsolete.

But for 86-year-old Adolphus Thompkins, the structure still holds a special place.

Thompkins is on the Jacob School Heritage Board to restore the Jefferson Jacob School, a Rosenwald school in Jefferson County. He said the school, now a Masonic lodge, is still a fixture in the historically Black neighborhood he grew up in.

“There’s something that they can be proud of and say, ‘this is mine.’ It’s just a good feeling among Black people, that we’ve got something we can call our own,” Thompkins said.

The Filson’s exhibit is free and open to the public.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.