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How Rosenwald schools transformed African-American education in the rural South

Impact of Rosenwald schools on education
Impact of Rosenwald schools on education and how they changed the lives of Black Americans 06:37

From above, it seems ordinary: a simple white house an hour northwest of Atlanta. But when the Noble Hill school was constructed nearly a century ago, it was revolutionary.

Marian Coleman and four generations of her family were educated at the school — one of the thousands built between 1912 and 1937 that transformed African-American education in the rural South.

"We weren't really free to do, or to think that we could accomplish more," she told CBS News' Michelle Miller. "But when we were able to get the school, and this made the foundation so we could really believe in ourselves. And the teachers helped us to know that we were able to move forward now."

The institutions became known as Rosenwald schools, named after wealthy industrialist Julius Rosenwald – the president of retail giant Sears. They provided an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of poor African Americans to be educated, and their construction has been called one of the most effective philanthropic endeavors of the 20th century.

Photographer Andrew Feiler is telling the story of the schools in black and white.

"This is an important Southern story," he said. "This is an important American story. This story transforms America."

The story grew out of a friendship between Rosenwald, a son of Jewish immigrants, and noted educator Booker T. Washington, founding president of the Tuskegee Institute. Together, they sought to reverse years of inequality in education because of slavery and segregation.

"This story are the pillars of my life," explained Feiler. "The relationship between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington is the foundation of the Black-Jewish alliance that becomes a pillar of the civil rights movement."

In 1912, the duo launched a pilot program, building six schools in Alabama. They required local communities to donate the land and raise matching funds. 

The schools initially segregated students – something Rosenwald and Washington worked to change, according to Marian Coleman.

"The schools started off as segregated, they were trying to get through that part," she described. "To me, it disheartened [students] and made them feel like they didn't matter."

Within 25 years, 4,978 schools were built across 15 states. They were buildings of basic design: two rooms with a removable partition, large windows to let in sunlight, and a plain exterior to avoid unwanted attention.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank have done five studies on Rosenwald schools and found that prior to World War I, there was a large and persistent educational gap between Black and White people in the South, Feiler explained. 

But the gap shrunk significantly between World War I and World War II, thanks to the help of Rosenwald schools. 

"We often think the problems in America, public policy problems in America, are so intractable, particularly those related to race," said Feilar. 

"At the center of this story is Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington reaching across divides of race, religion and region, partnering with Black communities and White school boards to fundamentally change America."

Only about 500 schools remain, relics of a time before legal segregation ended in 1954. Some have been repurposed or rebuilt but many are in disrepair, forgotten by the communities they served.

Feilar spent three and a half years documenting them. His photographs are on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta in an effort to help preserve their legacy.

"Julius Rosenwald was a very modest man. He did not name these schools 'Rosenwald schools,' they became known as Rosenwald schools," he said. "One of the reasons why we don't know the Rosenwald name as much as we know the names of some of his philanthropic contemporaries like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford."

Though Rosenwald's peers are widely regarded as monument builders, Feiler distinguishes Rosenwald as a "legacy builder," one whose legacy is still being felt.

Many of those educated at Rosenwald schools went on to higher education and in turn, educated future generations. Prominent leaders of the civil rights movement like Medgar Evers, Maya Angelou, and the late Congressman John Lewis were products of these institutions.

Today, Noble Hill is a museum run by Marian's niece, Valerie Coleman, who is generations removed from the school yet steeped in its history.

"It's not just African American history to us," said Coleman. "It's also American history. This is not just a job for me, this is legacy."

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