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Drew County Memories – The History of Selma’s Rosenwald School

October 24th, 2010 by

Origionally posted November 22, 2007.

Selma Rosenwald School by Sheilla Lampkin

In the past year or so the Drew County Museum was contacted as to the location of Drew County’s Rosenwald School. Since none of our museum commission members had any knowledge about such a place, a fascinating search began which led to the discovery of the Rosenwald educational project and the knowledge that Drew County did indeed have an old school building of great national significance resting quietly down one of our rural byways. The search was an interesting and informative one, especially dear to my heart since it involved schools and education.

First, let’s go back in history and explore the name Rosenwald and its effects on American education.

Rosenwald School Program

Our story begins with Julius Rosenwald, an American merchant and philanthropist born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois. In 1879 he moved to New York.m Six years later he returned to the Midwest, settling in Chicago at the age of 23 as president of a clothing firm. In 1895 he joined Sears, Roebuck and Company and served as treasurer and vice-president of the firm for 15 years.

Rosenwald became the president of the Sears Roebuck firm in 1910. He made a large fortune and gave most of it away. Rosenwald established the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and contributed to many other civic causes and public institutions, including Jewish charities and Y.M.C.A. buildings.

In 1912 Rosenwald was appointed to the board of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, and began a strong friendship with its president, Booker T. Washington. He agreed with Washington’s ideas about black self-help to educate black children with an emphasis on economic advancement through vocational education.

One goal of Booker T. Washington’s educational plan was to provide black children with safe, modern school buildings. At this time most rural black schools were dilapidated structures with crude desks and benches. Most students were schooled in churches, lodge halls, homes and other private buildings.
Washington’s plan was to organize black school patrons to buy land and build schools which would then be turned over to local school districts. These schools would have a vocational curriculum emphasizing basic skills and trade programs for boys with home economics training for girls.

Since few rural African-American communities had the financial means to tackle these projects, Washington appealed to philanthropists who supported Tuskegee Institute for help in financing these schools.

Julius Rosenwald was one of his contacts. In 1912, on his 50thbirthday, Rosenwald celebrated by making monetary grants to several charitable causes, including Tuskegee Institute.

After the grants were distributed, some funds were left over from Rosenwald’s intended charitable donation. Booker T. Washington approached Rosenwald about using these monies to build six black schools in rural Georgia. Each school received $300 toward the construction of a school building. Other funds were provided from local sources and the schools were built. Thus began the Rosenwald legacy.

Together Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington initiated the beginnings of one of the most prevalent types of funding programs that we still use the matching grant. Their plan’s basic premise relied on local communities making donations toward building construction and the local school boards operating the school. Those things in place, Rosenwald would grant cash toward the actual building construction of the school facility. Rosenwald’s desire was to provide some funding for facilities while local groups still maintained authority for operating the schools.

In 1914 Rosenwald gave a $30,000 gift for construction of 10 more rural school buildings, followed by gifts for up to 200 additional schools in 1916.

In 1917 Rosenwald formed the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a philanthropic foundation that provided grants for seed money to provide more school buildings and encourage individuals and local governments to take responsibility for these needed programs and services.

Mr. Rosenwald saw the building program as an incentive to Southern states to provide better schools for rural black children. A committee of Tuskegee executive officers oversaw the construction program and Clinton Calloway, director of Tuskegee’s Division of Extension, coordinated the applications and grants.

Calloway also monitored the reports of Rosenwald agents who toured the south drumming up support for the program and overseeing fundraising and construction efforts. In many instances the Rosenwald funds also paid half the salaries of building agents in participating states.

The Tuskegee Institute staff and Mr. Calloway also drew up the initial building plans for Rosenwald-funded schools. In 1915, the Institute published a book of basic building plans for the earlier Rosenwald buildings.

These plans featured three building types; a one-teacher school, a central consolidated school, and a county training school.

The smaller design was the one-teacher school, but these were not one-room schoolhouses. They included a classroom for academic instruction, a smaller industrial classroom, a kitchen, a library and a cloakroom.

Lighting and ventilation were a consideration from the start. Windows were grouped together to allow the maximum amount of natural light into the buildings. The buildings were also built on short piers to provide for ventilation and moisture control.

The larger central school plan called for a regular school building, a separate industrial classroom building for teaching vocational skills and a home for the teacher. Often there were practice farm plots on the grounds too.

By 1919 the Rosenwald building program had overwhelmed the administrators at Tuskegee Institute. County school officials and contractors had begun to alter plans at will and even bought cheap materials to stretch funding further. Mistakes in interpreting the school plans had also resulted in inferior buildings. Something had to be done to maintain the initial goals of the project.

The Rosenwald Fund hired Fletcher B. Dresslar, professor of school hygiene and architecture at George Peabody School for Teachers in Nashville, to assess the school plans and structures.

Dresslar’s recommendations required more onsite supervision and use of the original designs as a condition for funding. He also called for new plans that would be more sensitive to lighting and ventilation, as well as allow for an auditorium and future additions to the school facilities.

At the same time that problems with some buildings were recognized, an audit of the financial records of the Rosenwald Fund revealed many mistakes there caused by oversight and the heavy workload on a small number of people.

The Rosenwald Fund responded to both sets of problems by creating an independent Rosenwald Fund Southern Office in Nashville in 1920. Its major goal was to construct model rural schools.

Samuel L. Smith was appointed director and he immediately drew up a fresh set of school plans which were published in 1924 as Community School Plans. These plans made careful use of natural light and provided separate designs for buildings facing north-south and east-west. Schools ranged in size from 1 to 7 teachers with plans included for out buildings.

Each school was required to have minimum standards for the site’s size and length of school term. Each school must have new blackboards and desks for each classroom, as well as two sanitary privies.

School grants were based on the number of teachers employed by each school. Typical grants were for $500. Grants of $200 per added classroom for additions to existing schools were also offered.

As a part of the agreement for funding the schools, local people still had to contribute cash, or in-kind labor, to the construction of the buildings. This was to foster local pride and a feeling of ownership of the schools.

By far the biggest funding source, however, was county tax revenues. County school boards had to agree to provide public support, take over ownership of the new school property and maintain it as part of the public school system.

As stated earlier, Rosenwald funds provided seed money to help get things started. In its prime building years between 1920 and 1930, Rosenwald funds helped build 400 to 500 schools annually at a cost of $356,000 to $414,000 each year.

Fletcher Dresslar and Samuel Smith, director of the Rosenwald Funds Southern Office, developed community school plans that were an improvement on the earlier plans. These plans became the models for the rest of the Rosenwald school building years from 1920 to 1928.

In the new plans additional consideration was given to lighting to enhance the school setting and preserve the vision of the school children. Windows were limited to one side of the building to allow a single stream of light and reduce eyestrain. Windows were also taller to let in more light.

Windows were set high under the eaves for cross ventilation. Sliding doors and removable blackboards opened up interior areas.

Rosenwald schools also had specific color schemes and interior features. Schools were painted nut brown with white trim, white with gray trim or light gray with white trim.

Inside the buildings walnut or oak wainscoting ran along the lower sections of the walls with gray or buff upper walls and cream or ivory ceilings. All of this color schemes were to enhance lighting in the building with minimum eyestrain for the students. Blackboards were located along three walls. Modern patent desks were included.

Known as community schools, the most popular plans called for a building facing the east or west. A minimum of two acres was required for each school site. Schools built according to these plans are the most easily recognized because they were as simple as possible. They were also more affordable, practical and modern in appearance.

In larger central and county school plans, Rosenwald funds could be used to build shop buildings and teachers’ homes.

Grassroots support was the real foundation of the Rosenwald program. Local citizens were encouraged and necessary to support these schools and strengthen the communities. These buildings stood as a sign of the community’s commitment to a decent education for their young.

The school often served as a gathering place for the community and benefited the entire community.

However, in 1928 the Rosenwald Fund began to change directions. It began cutting back on rural building programs and trying to emphasis projects concerning higher education and medicine. At the same time it began to encourage the construction of urban industrial high schools that would offer trades education.

Only five Rosenwald-inspired trades schools were constructed; one in Little Rock, Arkansas; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Maysville, Kentucky; Greenville, South Carolina; and Columbus, Georgia. This program was unsuccessful and ended in 1930.

At the same time funding was cut to smaller schools to encourage larger consolidated schools. Aid to one-teacher schools ended in 1930.

The reasoning behind this move was to eliminate the school boards’ dependence on Rosenwald funds and force them to accept responsibility for black schools. The Fund and Mr. Rosenwald had decided to expand and redirect their resources to include rural school instruction, higher education and public health.

However, the stock market crash and the depression that followed wiped out the value of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. stock that had supported the Rosenwald Fund. In 1932 it was announced that the building program would end. However, the Fund continued to grant scholarships to promising African-American students for eleven more years.

The last Rosenwald school was built in 1937 in Warm Springs, Georgia, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The program had come full circle. The first and the last Rosenwald schools were built in Georgia.

The Rosenwald Funds Southern Office closed in 1937. In June of 1948, the Rosenwald Fund completely closed after distributing $22,500,000 through its various grants and scholarships over the years.

From the 1910s into the early 1930s more than 5357 school buildings for black children were constructed throughout 883 counties in 15 southern states using Rosenwald funding at a cost of $4,364,869.

The Legacy of the Rosenwald Fund

Although the Rosenwald Fund faded into history in 1948, the fund had a definite impact on American education. Many of the Rosenwald schools constructed between 1912 and 1937 remained in operation until the 1960s and 1970s when desegregation of schools ended and blacks and whites began to attend the same schools. By this time Rosenwald schools had served generations of teachers, students, parents and communities.

Later Rosenwald school plans became a model for southern school architecture and were used to build other schools through the New Deal years and the Works Project Administration (WPA) construction period.

Some Rosenwald schools still exist and are still utilized, albeit often under a different name. A case in point would be the Rosenwald school in the nearby community of Malvern, Arkansas. Built in 1929, it later served as an elementary school building. Then the building housed the Head Start program until 2003. Even today it houses the Central Arkansas Development Council.

There are similar examples from other states as to the continuing use of Rosenwald school buildings to enrich the lives of people.

The Rosenwald Initiative

Unfortunately, restored and useful Rosenwald schools are a rarity however. Today most of the Rosenwald schools are gone – lost forever to history.

In 2002 the National Trust for Historic Preservation began addressing the issue with the establishment of the Rosenwald Initiative. It was begun as a grassroots project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to spread the word about Rosenwald school history, help local communities identify buildings and encourage the sharing of preservation strategies.

More recently, Rosenwald’s daughter, Alice, has established the Alice Rosenwald Flexible Fund to distribute grant funds in order to raise awareness and support for the Rosenwald schools in remembrance and honor of her father and his contributions to rural education in the south.

The Rosenwald School Program in Arkansas

When the Rosenwald Fund ceased to exist completely in 1948, it had helped build 389 school buildings (schools, shops, and teacher’s homes) in 48 counties in Arkansas. The total amount drawn from the Fund for these structures was $1,952.441. The state or counties owned and maintained the schools and the land was usually donated.

R. C. Childress of Little Rock was the Rosenwald Fund Southern Office’s initial building agent in Arkansas. His job was to seek out locations for Rosenwald schools and help secure the land, funding, etc. He also oversaw the construction of the Fund buildings in Arkansas. (Incidentally, Mr. Childress was the first degree graduate of Philander Smith College and the second African-American to work for the Arkansas Department of Education. He dedicated his life to education and Childress Hall at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is named for him.)

Drew County’s Rosenwald School

All of this information brings us to a Drew County treasure, our own Rosenwald School. A scant quarter mile down Selma Collins Road near Selma sits this modest white structure that once served as a school before consolidation with the Drew Central district. Its grounds echo back to years gone by.

Built in 1924-25 its total construction cost was $2,275. In agreement with the Rosenwald plan, $500 was raised from the community, $1075 came from public taxes and $700 came from a Rosenwald grant. Rosenwald truly believed that if local funds were used more community pride would be forged.

The Selma Rosenwald school was built facing the west and using the Floor Plan Number 20 for a two-teacher community school. This plan called for two classrooms separated by a moveable partition. Each classroom had its own entrance and cloakroom. There was also an “industrial room” inset near the front for home economics classes or trade skills programs.

This room was called the Domestic Science room. Furnishings included a wood burning range, a treadle sewing machine, two galvanized wash tubs, a scrub board, an ironing board and some smoothing irons. There were also some cooking utensils, such as an iron pot, an iron skillet, a table, a few chairs and a water pail. Water was carried from a nearby house to the school originally.

The school was heated by a large wood heater. The boys were responsible for bringing in the wood and building the fires in winter.

There were two modern restrooms (outhouses) outside the building. One former student recalls modern toilet paper as being outdated Sears Roebuck catalogs.

The early school curriculum was reading, writing, spelling and math along with those domestic sciences.

The early school staff consisted of two teachers. The first two were Mr. C. H. Allen, who taught 4th through 8thgrades and served as principal, and Mrs. Lillie Davenport who taught Pre-primer through 3rd grades. Many, many other teachers followed through the years, including Mr. A. C. (Professor) Bailey, Mrs. Della Williams. Miss Rosie Trotter, Mrs. N. L. Norman, Albert Williams and Mr. York Williams.

School buses were far in the future in 1924. One former student remembers that a concerned parent later built a barn behind the school to protect the wagons and mule teams that brought the luckier, or wealthier, students to school from the elements. The majority of the earlier students walked back and forth however.

The school was originally named the Julius Rosenwald Training School. Inside the building the walls, floor and ceiling were constructed of fine tongue-and-groove lumber that is still in excellent condition. One room has a stage area across the back. A large portrait of Rosenwald is remembered hanging on the wall above the stage. The interior of the building has been well maintained over the years.

Weather and the other forces of nature have dealt more harshly with the school’s exterior. Part of the roof is a primary concern. All in all, however, it is in remarkably good condition for its age and circumstances.

The Selma school was used from 1924 until 1964 as a school for first grade through 10th grade classes. A trophy case of athletic awards still sits in the industrial room area, now a foyer. There is also a photograph of the original 1924 class.

On a warm August Saturday former students joyfully spoke of a steep hill that was once in front of the school. Students called it the Bear Bear Hill and played over and around it. The hill was eventually leveled as the road in front of the school was improved.

In the beginning students brought their lunches from home and ate outside or in the messy room between the two classrooms.

One long ago student fondly recalled her basketball career in school and their means of transportation to games. Having no bus in earlier years, the students piled in the bed of a truck to go to other sites to play ball. She says they had a good team. The trophy case supports that statement.

She also fondly recalls the school plays and programs in which she participated. She especially remembers the grand school closing programs at the end of each school year.

A couple of the older male students remembered the pond behind the school that used to freeze over in winter. They recalled skating there.

They also remembered many fun games played, including dropping the rag, hide-n-seek and Red Rover.

In its later years electricity, sidewalks, a gas light, swings and a flagpole were added. Playground equipment, such as swings, monkey bars, etc., was added in 1951. Basketball was always a favorite activity. Baseball was played in the field beside the school that was improved in 1955.

Eventually other buildings, now long gone memories, were added to the site, including a cafeteria and other classrooms. Concrete slabs remain where some of these and improved outdoor restrooms once stood.

Consolidation finally ended the school days for the Selma Rosenwald School in 1964. The halls and playgrounds were, for the most part, silenced.

In some years school reunions have been held and pictures of these gatherings hang on the walls in the foyer.

The Wyoming Lodge #461, F&AM, and True Light Order of the Eastern Star had met in the building until 2004.

Shortly before we learned of its historical significance, a group of local citizens had already begun efforts to restore the building as a community center and multipurpose building. They were as taken aback as anyone when it was revealed as a structure of such historical importance.

Now the whole community is galvanized to the pursuit of its recognition and restoration as a point of community pride and a part in the history of education in Drew County, Arkansas, and the nation.

In December, 2005, the Selma Rosenwald School was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. Its acceptance to such a prestigious listing will honor the building’s historical importance and lead to funding to help in the restoration and preservation of a community and national treasure – the Drew County and Selma Rosenwald School. We wish them great success


  • Hoffschwelle, Mary S., Preserving Rosenwald Schools, a National Trust publication, 2003.
  • Smith, Samuel L., Community School Plans, Rosenwald Funds, 1920-1928.


Interviews of former Selma Rosenwald school students:

  • Roberta Coleman
  • Ada Everett
  • James Daniel
  • Sandy Leonard
  • Mae Simpson
  • Mae Thomas
  • Input from Ralph Wilcox, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas

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