History came full circle when descendants of Julius Rosenwald met a granddaughter of Harris Barrett. The video gives the background story concerning the little school that makes the meeting significant.
Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862 while Abraham Lincoln was president. Rosenwald was the son of German immigrants. He dropped out of high school to apprentice with his uncles who were major clothing manufacturers in New York City. By the time he was 30, he had his own business specializing in ready-to-wear men’s suits.
He partnered with Richard Sears, who was struggling to fill mail orders at his business, which was named Sears, Roebuck. By 1908, largely due to Rosenwald’s innovations, Sears was was among the leading businesses in this country with thousands of employees and millions of customers, this company was the “Amazon dot com” of its day.
Rosenwald became very wealthy and very generous to charitable causes. In 1912, Rosenwald set aside $700,000 (equivalent to $16 million in current value) and encouraged his wealthy peers to also support worthy projects of their own choosing. Rosenwald’s slogan was “Give While You Live.”
A portion of Rosenwald’s charitable fund was donated to Booker T. Washington, a prominent educator who was principle at Tuskegee Institute, a college established to train former slaves. Washington dreamed of expanding education to young children in impoverished black communities in the South. A collaboration between Rosenwald and Washington gave birth to the Rosenwald Schools. Their project trained teachers and funded libraries. This energy created an energy that spilled over into civic pride manifested by improved roads and newly painted homes in the Tuskegee community.
By 1932, the year of Rosenwald’s death, there were 4,977 Rosenwald Schools throughout the South. He insisted that local communities also have skin in the game and locals dug into their meager resources to contribute to the school project. Washington secured additional funding from Harris Barrett, founder of a savings and loan association in Virginia, which was among the first black-owned banking institutions in this country. Washington named the elementary school after its benefactor and forevermore this little one-room building has been known as the Harris Barrett School.
Now a museum, the location in Tuskegee is one of the few Rosenwald Schools that have been preserved.
Submitted by contributing producer, Karin Hopkins, “Connected by History” is a virtual tour of the Harris Barrett School. Artifacts include vintage items and also materials that celebrate the accomplishments of black people, who have progressed against the odds.
Though Tuskegee is a specific locale in the Deep South, this community personifies the complexities of the southern states. The content we will provide showcases the resilience of the people and their unrelenting will to do better, often in spite of tremendous odds. With more and more Northerners returning to their roots or choosing to move South for the weather, cheaper housing and cost of living, these transplants also will find a rich culture and powerful history. At the request of Booker T. Washington, the Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote the Tuskegee Song” in 1906 as an anthem for Tuskegee University. The lyrics praise “Tuskegee, thou pride of the swift growing South.” Tuskegee is still a special place with a story that mirrors the evolution of the Deep South. That is the essence of my contributions under the heading “Tuskegee Spirit.”