You Need a Schoolhouse

Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South

by Stephanie Deutsch

You Need a Schoolhouse

Hardcover, 218 pages, Northwestern Univ Pr, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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NPR Summary

In the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald (president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company) collaborated to build thousands of schoolhouses for African American children in the rural South. Stephanie Deutsch tells the story of their unlikely partnership.

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Excerpt: You Need a Schoolhouse

From Prologue: May 1911

Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald met for the first time at lunch on a sweltering day in May 1911 at Chicago's elegant, new, lake-front hotel, the Blackstone. They had been anxious to meet each other. Washington regularly cultivated wealthy people who might donate money to Tuskegee Institute, the training school for black teachers he had founded thirty years earlier in rural Alabama. Rosenwald was such a man, extraordinarily rich and interested in using his money to promote the well-being of African Americans, though aware that he himself knew little about how best to do so. Each man knew the other might be of use to him. Each man was disciplined and determined, used to getting what he needed. We do not have a frank record from either one of his initial impressions of the other. We do know, though, that the results of the meeting between them would be extraordinary.

Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald came to their meeting from different backgrounds and at different stages in their lives and careers. Rosenwald, one year shy of his fiftieth birthday, was bursting with health and vitality. He was a short, energetic man, with dark eyes and hair, not much given to introspection but gregarious, outgoing, and animated. A voracious reader of newspapers, he made up for his lack of formal education by being well informed. He had been spared major disappointments in either business or private life and the many demands on his time — from running Sears, Roebuck and Company, one of the country's largest and most successful businesses, to his growing interest in using his fortune to encourage causes he cared about and to the needs of his large extended family — seemed not to burden him with worry but, rather, to fill him with energy. One person who knew him said "his personality radiated vitality and versatile interest." In a letter to his wife the previous year, Julius had described himself as sleeping well and feeling "like a fighting cock." He was always up early to take walks or to play tennis. He spent long hours in his office and was often out late in the evening at fund-raising meetings, lectures, or plays. His prominent position in business and his reputation for honesty and generosity gave him influence in Chicago and beyond. His desire to use his wealth responsibly and creatively made him open to the ideas of social welfare and civic reform bubbling up around him. He was developing the progressive's confidence that careful study and the judicious application of funds could solve society's problems.

Booker T. Washington had weathered many crises, both public and private, in his fifty-six years. He was just a few years older than Rosenwald and slightly taller, with medium-dark skin and arresting gray eyes, but he seemed more aged. His face was deeply lined. He had come "up from slavery" and had endured personal heartbreak, years of overwork, incessant travel, and both sides of fame — extraordinary public acclaim as an educator and the most prominent black man in America, and sharp criticism of his words and actions that often veered off into vicious personal attacks. In the black community, he was widely admired for his prominence and accomplishments, yet influential black leaders disparaged his program of vocational education and criticized him bitterly for his unwillingness to more aggressively speak out against lynching, limitations on black voting, and other signs of intransigent racial hostility. Some described him as a traitor to his race, overly anxious to ingratiate himself with whites. At least in part because of this he was guarded, always keeping his deepest feelings private. His life had a disturbing double quality. Having grown up in the country, he loved to be outside tending his chickens, riding his horse, or gardening, yet he spent much of his time in trains and hotels, talking with people he hardly knew. He had been invited to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt and had drunk tea with Queen Victoria, yet he had also, just six weeks before meeting Rosenwald, been violently assaulted on a New York City street, receiving a wound that took sixteen stitches to close and leaving him, by his own account, "dazed and physically and mentally upset." His success and his fame, his very identity as a black American, were painfully equivocal.

Whatever doubts and anguish he held in his heart, though, on that hot May day in Chicago, Washington still had two assets that in the past had served him well — a compelling personal story and an extraordinary ability to communicate confidence and optimism. Both would strike a responsive chord in Julius Rosenwald.

From You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South by Stephanie Deutsch. Copyright 2011 by Stephanie Deutsch. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.

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