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.

Rabbi Henry Cohen

Rabbi Henry Cohen

Rabbi Henry Cohen

In 1888, Rabbi Henry Cohen, a wiry little man, barely five feet tall, with a booming British accent, arrived in Galveston to serve Temple B’nai Israel where he remained for the next sixty-four years. He wore black, tuxedo-type suits, white bow ties, and starched white shirts with stiff cuffs on which he wrote his appointments and sermon notes. Dressed in this formal getup, he rode about Galveston on a bicycle from jail cell to hospital bed to Galveston’s red-light district, ministering to and helping every person in need regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof. He was known for saying “there is no such thing as Episcopalian scarlet fever, Catholic arthritis, or Jewish mumps.”

Born in London in 1863, Dr. Cohen was educated in England and lived in South Africa, Jamaica, and Mississippi before coming to Galveston. He spoke eleven languages, well, and was a charismatic speaker. Despite his small frame, he displayed a giant’s determination and a flair for the dramatic as he went about his duties.

Upon hearing of a girl being kept in prostitution against her will, he tore across town on his bicycle, barged into a whorehouse, and found the girl half-naked. Wrapping her in a blanket and walking with one arm around her and the other guiding his bike, he led her to a clothing store where he told the merchant to “fit her out from head to foot.” Then, he took her home to his wife and found her a job. Words of his fearlessness quickly spread through the back streets of Galveston. When a prostitute on her deathbed asked to be given a “proper Christian burial,” Rabbi Cohen was called. He went to the cemetery and led her service reading scripture from the New Testament.

Early in his ministry according to Natalie Ornish in Pioneer Jewish Texans, “Roman Catholic Cardinal Satolli visited Galveston. At a public dinner in the Cardinal’s honor, he asked Dr. Cohen to say grace, and the rabbi said it in Latin—after which the Cardinal responded with a blessing in Hebrew.”

Rabbi Cohen played a major role in providing jobs and homes for Jewish immigrants in what was called “The Galveston Movement.” Beginning in the 1880s millions of European Jews arrived on the East Coast without the means to survive—no English, no job, and no where to live. They settled with fellow immigrants in the slums of New York’s lower East side where several families often crowded into a tiny room, even sleeping in hallways. The congested, impoverished conditions led to child labor and to crime. American Jewish philanthropists were embarrassed, and set about organizing a program that diverted ships away from the port of New York and on to the port of Galveston. Rabbi Cohen, through the Galveston Movement worked from 1907 to 1914 with cities and towns, mainly west of the Mississippi River that kept him informed of their employment needs such as trunk, harness, and saddle makers or spinners and weavers or cobblers and hat makers. Rabbi Cohen met most of the ships and directed over 10,000 immigrants to homes and occupations throughout the South and Midwest.

Dr. Cohen headed the Central Relief Committee after the 1900 storm and he and his friend Father James Kirwin were the primary force that kept the Ku Klux Klan from moving into Galveston in the 1920s. As a member of the Texas Prison Board, the rabbi initiated reforms that separated hardened criminals from first offenders and improved prison medical facilities. Many young men were paroled to his care, and he found them jobs, remaining in touch with them as they got their lives back together.

When he heard that a Russian immigrant had arrived illegally and was about to be returned to certain death, Rabbi Cohen boarded a train bound for Washington, secured an appointment with President William Howard Taft, and made it clear that the man faced a firing squad if he were sent back. President Taft expressed his sympathy and claimed to have no influence on immigration. As the rabbi rose to leave, the President added that he admired Dr. Cohen for coming “all this way for a member of your faith.”

“Member of my faith!” Rabbi Cohen roared, “This man is Greek Catholic. A human life is at stake.”

Immediately, President Taft picked up the phone and arranged for the immigrant to be released to the custody of the fiery little man standing before him.


Mystery surrounds Miss Rita’s early life.  Raised in a prosperous, but unnamed Oregon family in the early 1900s, she left home to dance for a time for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before she joined the vaudeville circuit.  During her first, brief marriage, no one knows why she became a prostitute.

When the Great Depression forced the decline of vaudeville theatres, Miss Rita arrived in Beaumont, the oil city enjoying its second petroleum boom.  She probably knew about the vast wealth in the southeast Texas city from her tours with the vaudeville circuit and from Beaumont’s fame as the locale of Spindletop, the first big oil gusher in 1901 that led to the creation of industry giants like Gulf and Texaco.

Miss Rita rented facilities for her trade from Charles Ainsworth, but soon took a liking to his son Nathaniel.  The couple married and Miss Rita took early retirement.  After several years of financially establishing themselves in Beaumont, Rita and Nathaniel purchased Beaumont’s small Shamrock Hotel.

After Nathaniel died in 1946, Miss Rita sold the Shamrock, and purchased the Dixie Hotel in Beaumont’s thriving red light district. (The Dixie is the white building, second from right)  Employing her knowledge of the prostitution business, she tastefully decorated the Dixie and employed a group of attractive, well-mannered women.  Word spread quickly about her discreet, first-rate establishment.  Some reports claim private entrances allowed customers to enter undetected.

Despite ample competition, business thrived at the Dixie and Miss Rita used her increasing wealth and business sense to make large investments in local real estate.  She also raised her children and even sent her daughter away to a Catholic girl’s school.

Miss Rita became known in the community for her generosity.  She funded little-league teams, supported churches, and even sent a priest through seminary.  Some accounts say the police contacted her when people needed financial help after an accident or some other misfortune.  Miss Rita set aside the third floor of the Dixie for old men who had no place to live. While cheap local hotels charged a dollar a night, Miss Rita charged the men only seven dollars a month, which included their meals.

Finally in 1961, vice and corruption in the red light district reached such a level that a five-man committee conducted three-day televised hearings exposing the sale of liquor to minors, narcotics trafficking, and payoffs to city officials as well as prostitution.  The Dixie closed with all the other facilities.

An IRS investigation resulted in a $100,000 tax bill, forcing Miss Rita to sell all her property except her home and the Dixie.  Apparently she continued her prostitution business out of her home until 1976 when failing health forced her to sell the Dixie to the Gulf Sates Utilities Company who donated it to the Beaumont Heritage Society.

The philanthropic madam moved to Houston to live with her daughter and died in 1978.  Miss Rita’s position in Beaumont’s life earned her a story in a pictorial history of Beaumont. The attached painting “Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher,” by Aaron Arion, belongs to Beaumont’s Tyrell Historical Library.