NEARLY TWENTY YEARS ago, the Jewish Museum in New York mounted an exhibition that sought, rather ambitiously, to chronicle, interpret, and celebrate the once-storied relationship between African Americans and American Jews. Called Bridges and Boundaries, the exhibition determinedly reclaimed the high moral ground, eager to re-establish the ties that had historically bound the two groups together rather than heed those that had, of late, ripped them apart. Its larger objective was to highlight the bridges and minimize the boundaries between the two communities.
Toward that noble end, Bridges and Boundaries displayed horrifying photographs of a lynching side by side with equally horrifying photographs of the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom; board games that poked fun at Jews as well as blacks; Ben Shahn lithographs and the artwork of Adrian Piper, and a broadside which, in big bold letters, said “Missing Call FBI,” followed by headshots of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Henry Schwerner. Despite the eye-opening and disturbing material on display, Bridges and Boundaries failed to live up to its mandate, much less the mantle of responsibility that hung heavy on the shoulders of its curators, designers, researchers and sponsors. Something about it did not quite cohere. Although I saw the exhibition several times, I could never put my finger on what was missing.
Now I know. It lacked a Rosenwald School. If ever there were a powerful symbol of the relationship between African Americans and American Jews, it was these little wooden schoolhouses, nearly five thousand of which were built throughout the rural South between 1912 and the 1930s, thanks to the financial support of Julius Rosenwald of the mighty Sears, Roebuck & Co., and supplies from his store, as well as the in-kind donations of African Americans.
These white clad schoolhouses, which typically featured one room or two and sometimes as many as six, were a far cry from the tumbledown shack that passed as a school for most African American youngsters in Alabama, Mississippi, and the Carolinas. Built according to a standardized plan, whose details encompassed everything from the shape of the windows to the kinds of permissible decorations—the “indiscriminate tacking of small pictures around the walls should be avoided” but the installation of “one or two pictures of Negro leaders” was to be encouraged—the Rosenwald School provided an airy and bright space for the teaching of young African Americans. Compared to the public schools that white kids attended, the Rosenwald facility, it is true, was not much to sing about. But when compared with the ramshackle quarters where black kids usually went to school, it was cause for cheering.
The Rosenwald School takes center stage in Stephanie Deutsch’s book, which charts the steadily expanding alliance between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald in the years prior to World War I. “I have always felt keenly for the colored race,” the merchant told a crowd of well-heeled Chicagoans at a luncheon honoring Booker T. Washington, as he publicly threw his support behind the establishment of a well-equipped YMCA for African Americans in the Windy City. “I feel a peculiar sympathy with a race that does not have a fair chance under the existing conditions of American life.” Washington, in turn, routinely turned to his newfound friend for advice and support, writing to him weekly.
Even so, it’s hard to say whether the two men delighted in one another’s company, or if their friendship was based solely on realpolitik. Deutsch’s account does little to bring them to life. Instead they function more like stick figures, unbending models of rectitude and high moral conscience. This is a missed opportunity, because on occasion the correspondence on which the book draws hints at a more complex relationship. Both men, it seems, were not above trafficking in stereotypes. From time to time, Rosenwald referred to African Americans as “culled” and “darkies,” while Washington, writing to Teddy Roosevelt, called his Chicago Maecenas “the Jew who has recently given so much money.”
As it turns out, the most successful and the most fully inhabited character in the book is the wooden Rosenwald schoolhouse. The ups and downs of the campaign to get it off the ground push the narrative forward, as does the nation’s belated recognition of its historical significance, a process that Deutsch carefully documents and applauds. Of a piece with other examples of vernacular American architecture whose values are increasingly recognized by curators, historians, and community folk, Rosenwald schoolhouses are currently being restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Never too sturdy to begin with, many fell apart over the years, and, pending restoration, they are now not much more than a jumble of wooden slats. Those that managed to weather the passage of time are being assigned new roles—a museum or a community center. Meanwhile the National Museum of African American History and Culture has made a point of collecting artifacts and other memorabilia associated with the Rosenwald School. Perhaps someday the museum might even have the opportunity to house one, or at least some of its elements, within its precincts.
On its own terms, as a modest monument to the aspirations of African Americans, and as a testament to good will, this philanthropic and cultural exercise in moral uplift deserves the spotlight, as do the students who, against great odds, learned their ABCs and acquired the dignity that comes from knowledge within its white clad walls. A sepia-toned photograph taken in the wake of Julius Rosenwald’s death brings home that point. In it, several rows of students at the Warren County Training School in Wise, North Carolina—the boys neatly arrayed in ties and jackets, the girls in crisp white blouses—stand behind a carefully hand- lettered sign that proclaims: “Lest We Forget. Julius Rosenwald. 1862–1932. Died Jan. 6, 1932. Builder of 800 Colored Schools in North Car.” In North Car., and throughout the nation as a whole, it is time that the Rosenwald schoolhouse has its day in the sun.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at The George Washington University, blogs at www.fromunderthefigtree.com.