Rosenwald Schools Legacy Explored at Tennessee State Museum

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Building a Bright Future: Black Communities and Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee, presented in partnership with Fisk University’s John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, opened at the Tennessee State Museum this summer and will run through February 25, 2024.

The community-focused exhibition highlights the work of alumni, descendants, and organizations to preserve the legacies of Rosenwald Schools across the state.

Multiple Maury County schools are featured in the new exhibit. This is the second Tennessee State Museum show centered on Rosenwald Schools, following the travelling photography exhibit by Andrew Feiler, A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America, which closed in May 2023.

What are commonly referred to as Rosenwald Schools were the result of an initial partnership between Sears, Roebuck, and Co. president Julius Rosenwald, Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington, and Black Communities throughout the South.

Between 1912-1937, that partnership resulted in the construction of almost 5,000 schools for Black children across 15 southern states, including 354 in Tennessee. Rosenwald schools drove improvement in Black educational attainment and helped educate the generation who became leaders of the Civil Rights movement.

Building a Bright Future: Black Communities and Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee leads the
visitor through the development of Rosenwald Schools and their legacies by first tracing the
history of education for Black Tennesseans beginning with the Reconstruction period. It
explores early partnerships between churches, schools and agencies like the Freedmen’s
Bureau, and the work of Black leaders, residents, parents, and teachers to improve educational opportunities for Black students. Featured exhibit topics include Black Education before 1912, Black Tennesseans and Rosenwald Schools (1912-1960s), and the Legacies of Rosenwald School Communities.

Partnering with The John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library at Fisk University was essential to developing the exhibit.

“We knew in order for such an exhibit to be successful, we would need to start by reaching out to and familiarizing ourselves with the previous work done by organizations who had already been preserving and telling the histories of these schools,” said Matthew Gailani, lead curator of the exhibition.

Fisk University librarian Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps acquired the Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives on behalf of the university in 1948. The collection documents the history of the Rosenwald Fund, including the school building program. It is now preserved by the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections & Archives.

“Our teams at Fisk University John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library and the Forging Future Pathways Forward: Building a Portal to Rosenwald Collections for all at Fisk University project were thrilled to partner and collaborate with Tennessee State Museum,” said DeLisa M. Harris, Director of Library Services at Fisk University. “This exhibit is the first major showcase of the impact and legacy of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Rural School program in Tennessee.”

The Library and Museum teams travelled across the state, making stops in all three Grand
Divisions and connecting with many Rosenwald School communities. They met with Rosenwald School alumni and descendants who shared their stories and experiences. The 4,000 square foot exhibit is a culmination of those visits, together with personal alumni and educator accounts, in an effort to highlight 16 of the more than 350 Rosenwald communities in Tennessee. It aims to engage visitors in understanding the history and significance of these schools and the surrounding communities along with current preservation efforts.

Schools, communities and Grand Divisions represented in the show include:

– Dunbar Rosenwald School, Loudon County, East Tennessee
– Hohenwald Rosenwald School, Lewis County, Middle Tennessee
– Lincoln School, Bledsoe County, East Tennessee
– Manassas High School, Shelby County, West Tennessee
– Multiple Schools, Maury County, Middle Tennessee
– Multiple Schools, Sumner County, Middle Tennessee
– Polk-Clark School, Gibson County, West Tennessee
– Smyrna Rosenwald School, Rutherford County, Middle Tennessee
– Tanner School, Cocke County, East Tennessee
– Townsend School, Franklin County, Middle Tennessee
– Trenton Rosenwald School, Gibson County, West Tennessee
– Ward School, Trousdale County, Middle Tennessee
– Warfield School, Montgomery County, Middle Tennessee
– Webb School, Carroll County, West Tennessee
– West Bemis Rosenwald School, Madison County, West Tennessee
– Wilson County Training School, Wilson County, Middle Tennessee

“It truly has been a privilege to work on this exhibit over the past year,” said Gailani. “In
particular, the generosity of alumni and community leaders in sharing their histories and
memories has been a very humbling experience. We hope that this exhibit will help act as a
platform for communities across the state to tell their stories and highlight the importance of Rosenwald Schools not only in Tennessee’s past but to its present and future as well.”

Building a Bright Future: Black Communities and Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee runs through February 25, 2024.