African American Schools During Jim Crow

African American children in the South attended segregated schools that were dilapidated. They used castoff books from white schools. At times they attended classes in churches and lodge halls because the local school board did not provide buildings for black

Booker T. Washington

students. Two men worked to change all that. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist instituted a program that eventually built 527 schools in Texas and almost 5,000 across the South.

Julius Rosenwald, son of German-Jewish immigrants, became part owner in Sears, Roebuck & Company in 1895, and from 1908 until 1925 he served as president. As he wealth grew he increased his giving, especially to educational and religious institutions. His

Julius Rosenwald

friendship and work with other philanthropists such as Paul J. Sachs of Goldman Sachs led to Rosenwald meeting Booker T. Washington.

Construction Map, July 1, 1932, 5,357 Buildings,
Fisk Univ., John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collection, Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives.

In 1911, Rosenwald wrote: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which we have suffered and still suffer.” After Rosenwald gave Tuskegee Institute $25,000 for a black teacher-training program in 1912, Booker T. Washington convinced Rosenwald to allow part of the money to be used for a pilot program to build six schools in rural Alabama. Impressed with the results, Rosenwald donated $30,000 for construction of 100 rural schools and then he gave additional money for building another 200 schools. By 1920 the Julius Rosenwald Fund began a rural school building program for African American children that continued for the next twelve years in fifteen states, including Texas.

To qualify for the grants, which ranged from $500 for a one-teacher facility to $2,100 for a school large enough for ten teachers, the local African American community had to raise matching money in the form of cash, in-kind donations of materials, and labor. Many of the schools were built in freedmen communities where the residents were eager to offer education for their children. African American men often cut the lumber, hauled the material, and served as carpenters. The land and building had to be deeded to local authorities, and the school district had to maintain the property. The district was required to furnish new desks and blackboards for all classrooms as well as two hygienic privies for each building. Classes had to be held for more than five months of the year.

Floor plans were specific as well. The design included large windows on the east side of the building to allow for maximum natural lighting and small high windows on the west side to ensure cross ventilation while keeping out the hot afternoon sun. Many white schools adopted the Rosenwald designs because they were found to be so efficient.

During the twelve-year program in Texas over 57,000 African American students were served by almost 1,300 teachers. Black citizens contributed $392,000; white citizens gave $60,000; tax funds totaled $1.6 million; and the Rosenwald Fund contributed $420,000.

Julius Rosenwald, who died in 1932, said it was easier to make a million dollars honestly than to give it away wisely. With that in mind and in light of changing social and economic conditions, he directed that all the Rosenwald Fund be spent within twenty-five years of his death. By 1948 when the program ended, Rosenwald and his fund had given over $70 million to schools, colleges, museums, Jewish charities, and African American institutions.

Ten to fifteen Rosenwald schools survive in Texas, and some are being restored as museums and community centers. In keeping with the original fundraising efforts, citizens are raising the money to bring back these historic buildings. Women in the Pleasant Hill area are selling quilts to restore the Rosenwald School. A Baptist Church near Seguin is using the Sweet Home Vocational and Agricultural High School as their fellowship hall and nutritional center. A U-Tube video tells the story of the West Columbia Rosenwald School, which was being used as hay barn before it was restored in 2001 as a museum. The Texas Historical Commission began in the mid-1990s to inventory the Rosenwald School Building Project and to apply for listing as National Register of Historic Places.

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Jim Crow in Texas

This week Austin hosted the Civil Rights Summit celebrating President Lyndon Johnson’s amazing efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legislation that changed the course of American history. The Felix Longoria Affair reveals only one painful account of life in the Jim Crow South before LBJ stood up to the practices that stained this country’s heritage.

In 1948 the remains of Private Felix Longoria were recovered from the Philippines where he had been killed while serving on a volunteer mission

Private Felix Longoria

Private Felix Longoria

near the end of World War II. His body was shipped to his home in Three Rivers, where a barbed wire fence cordoned off the Mexican section of the cemetery. When Longoria’s widow tried to arrange for his wake in the local funeral home, the director refused to allow the family to use the chapel. He claimed that at previous Mexican-American services there had been disturbances and also that “the whites would not like it.” The funeral director offered to hold the wake in the family’s home on the Mexican side of town, which was the custom in Three Rivers.

Private Longoria’s widow and her sister turned to Dr. Hector Garcia who had recently founded the American G.I. Forum, a group of Texans that worked to secure equal rights for Hispanic veterans. After Dr. Garcia received the same negative response from the funeral director that Mrs. Longoria had received, he sent telegrams to Texas congressmen asking for their support. Immediately Senator Lyndon Johnson responded, offering to arrange for the burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Word spread of the discrimination with an article in the New York Times, and Walter Winchell commented on his radio program, “The big state of Texas looks mighty small tonight.”

On February 16, 1949, the funeral service took place with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in the presence of Private Felix Longoria’s family, Senator Johnson, and a representative of President Harry Truman.

The Texas House of Representatives authorized a five-member committee to investigate the Felix Longoria affair. After open hearings at the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce, the committee decided that although the funeral director acted in anger, he had apologized, and he had not discriminated against the Longoria family. The report was never filed as committee members began to back peddle with comments such as the director’s words “appear to be discriminatory” and the director’s actions were on “the fine line of discrimination.”

The Civil Rights legislation that LBJ pushed through Congress in the 1960s began the long road toward reversal of discrimination in this country. The Civil Rights Summit of 2014 highlights and encourages the continuation of that march toward equality for all our citizens.

Black History Month–Part IV

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more.  I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by 41NhJL7XncL._SX270_her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.  In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri.  Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again.  Then, Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block.  They were purchased by a man named Washington McLaughlin, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart.  They finally settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting.  Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and, at time, whipped the slaves.”  At other times he gave them passes, which were required to leave his land.  If they went out without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south.  One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom,” but he waited for several days until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people.  You are free as I am.  You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you.  I can do without you.”

They stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant.  Finally the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family.  After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the river, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise.  Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek.  They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts, and got permission to milk a stray cow in exchange for raising its calf for its owner.  The milk, butter, and cream stayed fresh in a bucket they lowered into a well. They moved about as the seasons changed, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners.  They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums.

They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons that they heated on a fire log in the yard.  Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached and used to line her quilts.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services.  People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They also enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances.  When someone died, Rachel and her daughter, Demmie, prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.  Rachel, who lived to ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

JacketBlack Women in Texas History chronicles the lives of amazing black females from the days when they first arrived in Texas as both free and slave—during the Spanish Colonial Period—up to their present influence on Texas’ politics and education.  One of those women was Lulu Belle Madison White who graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A&M University) with a degree in English.  Before beginning a ten-year teaching career in Houston, White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where her husband had been active for several years.  She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bring justice to the black community.  She was an amazing fund-raiser and organized new chapters of the NAACP throughout Texas.  Even before the Supreme Court in 1944 found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “pay your poll tax and go out to vote” campaign.  She was the strongest advocate in Texas for using the black vote to force social change.  She argued: “we cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us.  We must go out and get them.”LuluBelle

She sought to educate the black community by leading voter registration seminars, and she urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates.  She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence the change.

In 1946 when the NAACP began its push for integrating the University of Texas, there was only one state-supported black college in Texas—Prairie View A&M—and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the university, she raised money to pay his legal expenses.  Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve.  When the state offered to open a separate black university with its own law school in Houston instead of integrating the University of Texas, White supported Sweatt’s rejection of the proposal on the basis that separate was not equal and only continued the status of Jim Crow.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education. A week before Lulu White’s unexpected death in 1957, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.