Confronting the Modern Era
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African American Schools

While government officials were interested in improving education for white students, they weren’t as interested in African American students.

Shelby County was an exception. Mayor Edward Crump 's political machine depended on the black vote. African American leader Robert Church, Jr., organized black voters and asked for improvements to schools in return for their votes.

In other Tennessee counties, black educators and private foundations attempted to improve rural African American schools.

The Julius Rosenwald Fund established a rural school building program, assisting in the construction of schools for African Americans. They assisted in the construction of 350 black schools in the state with a total value of $2 million.

The Rosenwald Fund would only contribute part of the cost of building the school. Since the white officials usually wouldn’t contribute, it was up to the black community to raise the matching funds. They then had to persuade the city or county government to support the school.

An agent for the Rosenwald Fund, Robert Clay, himself an African American, would select local people to make what he called “the right approach to white people.” These “right” people would be local African Americans who commanded respect from whites. In Haywood County, it was John Bond, a black man who owned hundreds of acres of farmland. Or in Madison County, it was two black ministers and a black doctor.

A typical meeting was like one held in Gibson County. Clay and a Gibson County supervisor met with black farm families at a church who had some land for a school. The families said they wanted a new, two-teacher, school, and voted to raise $500 to match Rosenwald funds. Clay and the supervisor then met with the mayor of Trenton who accepted the offer if the black families would also dig the basement and grade the property. The families agreed and work began on the school.

Fundraising methods varied. In Carthage, women went door to door to both black and white families and asked them to donate a chicken. They then held a chicken fair, selling the chickens, and donating the proceeds for their school project. Fayette County black farm families donated some of their hen eggs to be sold for the school. In some places churches designated part of their Sunday contributions to the school fund.

Other northern charities funded all schools. The Peabody Education Fund was originally founded by George Peabody, an international banker and philanthropist. In order for schools to receive the financing, districts would have to form a ten-month school year and have at least one teacher for every 50 pupils. From 1867 to 1897 the fund contributed over $220,000 dollars to teacher training and normal schools in Tennessee.

For more information about Rosenwald Schools, click here.

Picture Credits:
  • Photograph entitled, “Green School Pupils.” This photo was created in 1920 in Knoxville on the steps of the Carnegie Library on Vine Avenue. The African American students range in age from 5 to 12. Green School was established in 1909 and was one of the city’s earliest schools for African American children. Beck Cultural Exchange Center.
  • Photograph of  “Old Adams Colored School.”  This photo was taken on January 31, 1922 in the town of Adams in Robertson County, Tennessee.  The school yard is shown littered with debris. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  • Photograph of  “Old Hollow Rock Colored School.”  This photo was taken in March 1928 in Carroll County, Tennessee.  It shows a group of students standing on the front left side of the school and probably their teacher standing directly in front. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  • Photograph of  “Gladeview School (Colored).”  This photo was taken sometime between 1924 and 1928 in Gladeville, Tennessee.  It shows a group of African American students standing in front of the school. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

   Confronting the Modern Era >>  Racial Segregation >>  Jim Crow Laws >>  African American Schools

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