You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South

Northwestern University Press  2011


A bright, quick-paced work that artfully combines social and economic history, Jewish history, African-American history, and moral education, You Need a Schoolhouse illuminates powerful trends in twentieth century American life. A double biography, this book charts the philanthropic and educational partnership between Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave and who became a founding leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and the German-Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald, who became an owner of Sears, Roebuck in Chicago and who became a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute. Washington and Rosenwald worked together to combat poverty and ignorance in the era of Jim Crow; responding to Booker T. Washington’s 1895 summons, “You need a schoolhouse,” Rosenwald worked with Washington and others to build hundreds of long-remembered well-constructed school buildings for African-American boys and girls in the deep South. By 1932, the nearly 5,000 schools had become havens from prejudice where students acquired knowledge and skills for adulthood and citizenship.

In describing the partnership between Washington and Rosenwald and the hurdles that the two had to overcome, the author, a distant relative of Rosenwald’s by marriage, handles that era’s racist language and attitudes skillfully, framing mean-spirited and degrading remarks in their twentieth century context. The reader of this compelling narrative soon grasps how the two men, in spite of having been victims of the horrors of “race prejudice,” held out the hope that the United States could provide them with a true home where they could pursue academic excellence, live by the highest ideals of character, and go on to provide a rich life for others. Bibliography, index, notes.

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