Symposium reveals state public education history

Kesha Williams
March 01, 2010

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Valerie Wesson, an elementary education major at ECSU, finally learned the historical details of old, empty schools strung across Bertie County.

While attending a recent Black History month symposium, "The Effort to Educate: Rosenwald Schools in Northeastern North Carolina" she learned those schools represent an important chapter of the state's public education history.  They were constructed for students who preceded Wesson  by several decades. Wesson was born in Bertie County,  and saw the structures as a youngster and during return trips to visit relatives there. However, the symposium provided more information than brief accounts from her relatives.

During the symposium, Gregory Tyler, a curator and genealogist at Historic Hope Plantation in Windsor, N.C.,  explained the rise of Rosenwald schools in northeastern North Carolina. Rosenwald schools, funded partially by Sears and Roebuck president, Julius Rosenwald,  were established as a means to fill in the deficient  expenditure gaps of early, southern Black education.

While most regions in the South received building funding, North Carolina stands out the state with the most Rosenwald grant-based schools. North Carolina received approximated 800 of the Rosenwald Funded schools which were constructed across 93 of state's 100 counties.

The Rosenwald Fund supported over 5,357 schools. All were constructed for Negro students between 1913 and 1932. The first Rosenwald funded school was built in Alabama. North Carolina received its first Rosenwald funded school in Chowan County 1915. The blueprints were distributed to school systems for free several years. Some of the former Rosenwald Funded schools continued in use by school systems well into the 1970s. Renovations were made for growing school bodies. The school in Colraine later renovated of its classrooms into a cafeteria for its elementary school students. According to Tyler, the Bertie County structures ranged from one to 10 rooms.

"Nineteen of structures in Bertie County received funding from the Rosenwald Fund and were constructed based upon the Rosenwald School Plans. Up to 12 additional schools used the Rosenwald School plans but were not funded by the Rosenwald Fund after Rosenwald's death in 1932," Tyler said.

"North Carolina received approximated 800 of the Rosenwald Funded schools and they constructed across 93 of state's 100 counties. The first Rosenwald Funded school was built in Alabama" Tyler said. "North Carolina received its first Rosenwald Funded school in Chowan County in 1915. "

The  blueprints were distributed to school systems for free over the course of several years. Some school systems used the former Rosenwald Funded schools well into the 1970s. Renovations were made for some growing school bodies. The school in Colraine later renovated one of its classrooms into a cafeteria for its elementary school students.

Tyler said she has made the presentation for at least three audiences and looks forward to making it again. She has been with Hope Plantation since 2006 thought the symposium at ECSU was another way to reach a young adult audience. She said students like Wesson are surprised to learn how Rosenwald Schools remained part of school systems or became part of churches built near the schools.

"My other audiences were in many cases African Americans from Bertie County who could recall their experiences attending Rosenwald Schools. I've interviewed 10 people who attended the Rosenwald Funded schools," Tyler said. "This is a relevant discussion for Black History Month because we as residents can see how far we have come."