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Brown Summit alumni lead effort for Rosenwald school recognition
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Brown Summit alumni lead effort for Rosenwald school recognition

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BROWNS SUMMIT — In the history of the Southern United States, and especially the history of race and education, skipping from the Civil War to the civil rights era means missing so much of the story.

On Thursday, alumni of Brown Summit High School and others gathered at what is now Brown Summit Middle School Center for Advanced Academics. They were there to unveil a historical marker remembering their school and its past history as a Rosenwald school.

An early 20th century partnership between Booker T. Washington, a nationally influential Southern black leader and educator, and Julius Rosenwald, a white Northerner and president and co-owner of the Sears & Roebuck Co., helped reshape the architecture of rural black education across the southern United States.

The idea came from Washington, but Rosenwald became extremely passionate about funding black education in the South and continued the effort after Washington died. Between 1917 and 1932, Rosenwald and his foundation contributed to the construction of more than 5,300 schools for black students across the greater South, including some in Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and North Carolina. By 1928, a third of black children in the rural South attended a Rosenwald school. The funding was only for black schools, but both white and black schools benefited from the free school construction designs they made available.

The Rosenwald schools effort has been called the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Generally, the Rosenwald school buildings were a giant improvement over what preceded them. Advocates of black advancement in the late 1800s and early 20th century faced an onslaught of political, social and violent pressure with the opposite aim. Jim Crow laws kept schools segregated and also kept black citizens from voting. Black Southerners couldn’t send their children to public school with white Southerners, and politicians didn’t have to worry about losing their votes if they failed to provide sufficient funding for black schools.

For Browns Summit, the Julius Rosenwald Foundation shouldered about 10 percent of the total $15,000 cost of the six-teacher school, which was built in 1924-25. Fisk University’s Rosenwald files online database lists the rest of the funding for the school as public. Many Rosenwald schools also used community donations, mostly from black communities, but also local white donors who sometimes made their contributions secretly.

Doris Settle Maxwell, who attended Brown Summit and another high school, got curious about her school’s past after hearing a friend talking about getting a marker recognizing her school as a Rosenwald site. Maxwell looked in an online database and discovered Brown Summit was one, too.

Maxwell, who volunteers at the school, has been moved by Rosenwald’s example.

“Just his giving spirit and the philanthropist he was, he has been so inspiring,” she said.

Various alumni came together to research and raise money for the marker unveiled in Thursday’s ceremony, which about 75 or so people attended. Many were alumni, but current students and various local officials also attended.

Rebecca Wright, Class of 1964, said people today point out in critique that Washington and Rosenwald were going along with segregation, not standing up against it or calling it wrong. That’s true, she said, but it doesn’t take away the importance of the history.

None of the original Rosenwald school structure remains in the current building, but it was part of the campus for many decades. Other wings were built and the Rosenwald school became part of a high school.

Robert Lee Sellars, Class of 1954 and later a teacher, spoke about his experiences growing up and attending the Rosenwald school. Most students, he said, came from families of tobacco sharecroppers or farmers. Others were domestic workers or had jobs at Cone Mill.

“I see some of the people who I worked in tobacco with,” he said, looking out at the crowd. “If you didn’t work in it, you heard about it.”

Graduates of Rosenwald schools were among the teachers for Southerners, such as Maxwell, who came of age in the 1960s.

Maxwell stressed how the close ties and excellence in teachers affected the students of Brown Summit High. When she began attending an integrated school, she said, it was like a different world, but she knew she could overcome any obstacles because of what had been instilled in her at Brown Summit.

“It was a school where we were taught the sky is the limit,” she said.

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.

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