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Preservation Virginia Works To Document Historic African American Schools

Rosenwald School in Cumberland Count
Rosenwald School in Cumberland County. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM)

*VPM intern Malcolm Key reported this story.

Nonprofit Preservation Virginia recently completed a survey of historic Rosenwald Schools built in the South during the Jim Crow era. The survey counted 382 of the schools built in Virginia between 1917 and 1932. 

The Rosenwald Rural School Building Program was created by Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute to offer education to African American students during segregation. With funding provided by Julius Rosenwald, who was president of Sears, Roebuck and Company at the time, the program launched over 5,500 schools across the U.S. After the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, many of the remaining schools became unused.

The survey took about a year. Researchers traveled over 4,400 miles across the state of Virginia, talking with community members and collecting data from organizations such as the NAACP. Preservation Virginia’s original plan was to only locate Rosenwald schools that were still standing, but Justin Sarafin, Director of Preservation Initiatives and Engagement, said he felt that it wasn’t enough.

“As the project really wore on, it became very obvious that it was almost more important to find and document the sites where schools once stood, where they no longer do,” Sarafin said.

Of all the schools built in Virginia, 126 -- or 33% -- are still standing. Very few of the buildings are currently being used for education, but some of those that make the list include the Virginia Randolph School in Henrico, and the Boston Hoffman School in Arlington.

Many of the remaining school buildings are used for housing, while others serve as community centers, churches, museums and recreational centers. 

Sarafin said not all of the structures have been well maintained, “but hopefully this survey and the statewide map, hopefully, that will help raise awareness about their historic significance so that they’re less threatened by development pressures, or demolition by neglect in some cases.”

Preservation Virginia said feedback from the communities where the Rosenwald schools once stood has been generally positive. Lisa Bergstrom, the organization’s preservation programs manager, said she enjoyed interacting with many of the alumni and descendants of students who attended the schools.

“Some of my best days were stopping and talking to somebody who was cutting the grass, or was sitting on their front porch, and I would wave them down and say, ‘Do you know where this school used to be?’ and they’d say ‘Oh my mother went to school there,’” Bergstrom recalled.

Sarafin said despite the positive attitude and feedback from community members, it’s important to remember the schools represent a history of “trying times,” and that the organization’s efforts to preserve this history that’s gone unnoticed are crucial when trying to “balance the narrative.”

All of the remaining Rosenwald schools have been included in the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Database. Three of those schools are being included in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. Sarafin said that highway markers throughout the state may be a way to commemorate schools that no longer exist.

Preservation Virginia said there’s not much they can do in terms of keeping the remaining school buildings around, but they are hopeful that communities all over the state will maintain a strong interest in the history of the Rosenwald schools and the history of discrimination in Virginia’s education system.

“There are great stories of resilience and fortitude that I think are missing in the story of Virginia...that are hidden stories,” said Bergman. “And that’s what I would like for people to find: the curiosity to look for these stories in your own community, to look at our map, to see what’s lacking, to see if they can find some more information and to write those histories and to tell those stories.”

Preservation Virginia has a full list and interactive map of all the Rosenwald Schools included in the survey.