GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Just outside Washington, D.C., right at the entry point of Prince George's County in Maryland, is an unassuming suburb called Capitol Heights. And just off Central Avenue, around the corner from an industrial zone of warehouses, there's a grove of trees behind an old school bus depot. And right there is where you'll find a priceless piece of American history.
STEPHANIE DEUTSCH: We are in the Ridgeley Rosenwald School. It was built in 1927.
RAZ: That's Stephanie Deustch. She's the author of our book today. It's called "You Need a School House: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South." We met her at this old, restored schoolhouse built with money from a man named Julius Rosenwald. He was the president of Sears and Roebuck, and one of the biggest philanthropists of his day back in the early 20th century.
Rosenwald partnered with Booker T. Washington to build thousands of schools for African-American children all across the South - like this one, Ridgeley Rosenwald, in Capitol Heights, Maryland.
DEUTSCH: Well, I guess the first and most striking thing is the windows. These nine-over-nine paned windows were very distinctive, very typical of Rosenwald schools.
RAZ: And very handy for providing light in the early years, when many of the buildings had no electricity. This school educated hundreds of African-American children up until the time it was shut down after desegregation. Today, it's been beautifully restored to serve as a community center and a museum.
Ninety-one-year-old Mildred Ridgeley Gray is also here this afternoon. She remembers those early years well. Not only did her family donate the land for the schoolhouse but she, herself, was a student at this school.
MILDRED RIDGELEY GRAY: I was 6 years old.
RAZ: The first day you walked in.
GRAY: The first day I walked in.
RAZ: Do you remember about that - anything about that first day?
GRAY: My oldest sister was my teacher, and I was very - insist that I had to call her Miss Maddie.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Miss Maddie would go on to teach two more generations of kids at the school, including Mildred's daughter Laverne. And Mildred herself eventually became a school principal and an administrator. Now, while Julius Rosenwald is largely forgotten today, his portrait once hung in all of the schools he helped to pay for. And Mildred Gray says all of her classmates knew who he was.
GRAY: Absolutely. Absolutely.
RAZ: They - the teachers told you, this is a man who gave money to help build this school.
GRAY: That is correct.
RAZ: Huh, that's interesting.
GRAY: That was said in the school. That was said in the home. In my home, we were very much aware.
RAZ: Rosenwald was one of the richest men in America. And when he decided to start giving his money away, he gave most of it to help persecuted Jewish communities in Europe. But Stephanie Deutsch says a race riot in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 made Rosenwald think twice about the treatment of African-Americans in his own country.
DEUTSCH: In one of his speeches, he said: We like to look down on the Russians because of the way they treat the Jews, and yet we turn around and the way we treat our African-Americans is not much better. The other thing was that one of his friends gave him a copy of "Up from Slavery."
RAZ: Booker T. Washington's autobiography.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. And it made a big impression on him. And about this time, he had been asked to donate for a YMCA building in Chicago, and he said well, I'll leave it to my Christian brothers to donate for the YMCA. But if you want to build a YMCA for black people, then come see me.
RAZ: You quote a man named Robert Moton in your book, and he said: It was a fortunate day for black folks when Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington met and decided that they trusted each other.
What led up to that day?
DEUTSCH: Both men - Washington and Rosenwald - had become involved with the YMCA movement. And someone connected with the YMCA put them together. And Rosenwald gave a luncheon for Washington, and they met at that luncheon. And they did - they met and trusted each other. And I think, probably, it was my fascination with that moment that led to this book. They came from totally different backgrounds, but they had certain things in common.
One was they were both quite practical people. They were very focused on analyzing problems and then finding solutions.
RAZ: Who came up with the idea to create schools for kids?
DEUTSCH: That was Washington's idea. His big belief was that education was the building block on which people would build better lives and stronger lives.
RAZ: You write about how they - how Washington said look, you can't just give the money and build the schools. You've got to make this a community effort and a community project all over the country - where these schools are going to be built. He got the community involved to the point where they were actually donating labor and material to build these schools, including - probably - this one that we're sitting in.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. That was a crucial insight. Booker T. Washington knew that in a lot of these small communities, people were already trying to figure out a way to get a school. They desperately wanted schools for their children. He also knew that Rosenwald, one of his beliefs about philanthropy was you teach men to fish; you don't give him a fish. Rosenwald always believed in matching grants. A lot of his philanthropy had been done that way. So the idea of partnering with the community was very much in keeping with Rosenwald's thinking.
RAZ: Eventually, more than 5,000 of these schoolhouses were built all over the South, the segregated South. They weren't just schools. I mean, these were also community centers.
DEUTSCH: Well, that's one of the interesting things about them. They were built to be somewhat flexible. Many of them had large rooms with partitions in the middle of them so they could be divided into two classrooms, but they could also open up to be a community center. And at a time when blacks were excluded from public libraries, public playgrounds and many other public facilities, the Rosenwald School was really theirs. And so it became a very - it became the heart of the community, in many places.
RAZ: Stephanie, you can't escape the fact that these were segregated schoolhouses. And I wonder if a part of this legacy is also the perpetuation of a segregated system.
DEUTSCH: I don't think so. I think that the legacy is - I think the legacy is actually one of empowerment because the people who participated in creating the Rosenwald schools, the people who saw their children getting educated in the Rosenwald schools, they had had a hand in getting what they wanted for themselves. They wanted schools; they got them.
They wanted places where they could - where their community could get together. They wanted that; they got it. And one of the sort of a-ha moments that I had in doing my research was when I was looking at footage of people walking to work during the Montgomery bus boycott. And I realized, gosh, some of them went to Rosenwald schools. And if they didn't go to Rosenwald schools, their mothers and fathers did.
And it was that attitude, that can-do attitude - we're going to build a school; we're poor, but we're going to donate money, we're going to donate labor, we're going to create this school - that was the same attitude that really undergirded the Civil Rights Movement.
RAZ: What happened to the Rosenwald schoolhouses at the end of segregation?
DEUTSCH: In most places, when segregation ended, the consolidated school was placed in the white building. It was usually a bigger building; often, a better building. It happened at different times in different places. I do know of one Rosenwald School, out in Rappahannock County, that functioned for a year as an integrated school, and then was closed.
In many places, the schools were kind of boarded up, and some of them fell apart and vanished. Some of them passed into private hands. The one out in Rappahannock County became the county dump, literally. They put the dumpsters in the front yard, and weeds grew up all around it.
And one of the really interesting things that's happened in recent years is that in many, many places in the South, alumni are looking at their schools and saying, I want to preserve that school that was such an important part of my life - or my mother's life, or my father's life.
And so there are lots of places where - like what they did here at Ridgeley - they're renovating the schools and restoring them.
RAZ: That's author Stephanie Deutsch. She's written a new book. It's called, "You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South." And we had this conversation here at one of those Rosenwald schools, the Ridgeley Rosenwald School in Prince George's County, Maryland, which is now a restored community center. Stephanie Deutsch, thanks so much.
DEUTSCH: Thank you.