Today, Florence Elementary School on Penny Road is a thriving segment of the Guilford County school system. Its success is due to a man who may never have visited North Carolina.
Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald served as president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 1910 to 1925. Like his friend, former slave Booker T. Washington, he was concerned about the poor quality of education (if there had one) for southern blacks. A 2015 documentary, “Rosenwald: A Remarkable Story of Jewish Partnership with African-American Communities,” was produced. Apparently, Rosenwald was shocked when he learned of the anti-Jewish programs in Russia and realized that America’s treatment of black people was no better.
According to HistorySouth.org, “In 1915, public schools in North Carolina spent $7.40 per white student but only $2.30 per black student.”
“In the early 20th century, most schools for African Americans in the South were underfunded and in very poor condition,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Rosenwald believed that education was the key to black success and established the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to increase educational opportunities for blacks in the rural south.
Prior to Rosenwald, most black education had been done after the Civil War as part of the Freedman’s Bureau. Judith Mendenhall ran a Freedman School in Jamestown.
Governor of North Carolina, O. Max Gardner, said of the schools in 1931: “The contribution which Mr. Julius Rosenwald has made in building schools for colored children in North Carolina has stimulated our people of two races to provide good schools for these children. ”
At the same meeting, State Superintendent AT Allen said, “The speed with which the work of the Julius Rosenwald Fund has spread across the country in recent years shows us the enthusiasm with which it has been received by all the people concerned.
“The whole story is inspiring. It gives courage and hope, not only to people of color themselves, but also to all who are trying to help them establish a proper school system for their children.
By the time the Fund ended in 1932, North Carolina had built more Rosenwald structures than any other Southern state—813 buildings, including teachers’ residences and industrial teaching shops.
Two of these schools were in the community of Florence, on the same site as the current primary school.
According to information from the North Carolina Museum of History, school building committees had a catalog of blueprints, floor plans and exterior renderings to choose from so that “any rural community could build a facility of high flight without the cost of an architect”.
There had been schools for black children in Florence in the past, but the community chose to be part of the Rosenwald system. They chose floor plan #20 for the original design in 1916 and #5 for the replacement in 1927 when overcrowding became a problem. The original schoolhouse was a standard two-room wooden schoolhouse with a room for teaching cooking and sewing. It was probably made up of two professors. The new brick building had four classrooms and an auditorium and was designed for seven teachers. It was built on the plan of Nashville and was “only to face east or west”.
According to Jamestown historian Mary Browning, “the old red-brick Florence school building…was demolished without too much ceremony.”
Designed as a matching grant system, local communities were asked to provide labour, materials and, in some cases, land.
The NC Museum of History notes that raising local funds for Rosenwald schools was no simple task among North Carolina’s black cotton and tobacco sharecroppers. However, the rallies collected both cash donations and pledges, often a penny and a nickel at a time.
Leon R. Harris, a black man and writer, began teaching at what he called “Florence’s black community school” in 1912, continuing until 1914. Dissatisfied with his job in Virginia, Harris had hopped a freight train south, ending up in High Point. He got a job as a farmer with a Mr. Lyons in Florence. When Lyons gave up farming, Harris was invited to teach at the school, using his training from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute. Locals urged him to get teaching credentials.
“I passed the exam and got a freshman certificate.” Harris said in an April 15, 1956 article, Greensboro Daily News. “The niggers [sic] were proud and happy. No teacher with a first-grade certificate had ever taught in their school.
“The Compulsory School Attendance Act came into force that year. The Florence school had never had more than 40 enrollments. My enrollment was 80. The second year it went to over 100.”
Soon, news of the school spread not only to the black community, but also to white people, who were invited by black people to attend.
“The little school was overflowing,” Harris said. “One day Prof. [Thomas R.] Foust, our county superintendent of schools, and two of the school board members came to visit. Professor Foust went no further than the door.
“’Where are all these children from?’ he asked me.
“’We have to have a new building before next quarter,’ I told him.
Harris had heard of the Rosenwald Fund and investigated. Since the church in Florence was the center of community life, the community decided that the new school should be near the church.
“We all came together, white and black,” Harris continued. “The white people gave all the wood for raw wood and some gave money. I took my ax into the woods with the others. We felled the trees, cut the logs and transported them to the sawmill. But every threshold under this school has been hewn by hand.
Unfortunately, due to family issues, Harris had to leave the area before he had a chance to teach at the new school. But as he left, he said goodbye to his good friend Clay Briggs, whose descendants still live in the Florence community.
The Rosenwald Schools effort has been called the most significant initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Although the references differ in number, the Rosenwald Fund has nonetheless been a great success. When the school building program ended in 1932, approximately 5,357 Rosenwald structures had been built in 883 counties in 15 states at a cost of between $24.4 and $28.4 million. They served over 7,000,000 black children. By 1928, one-third of rural black school children and teachers in the South were served by Rosenwald Schools. Only about 500 buildings remain.
New efforts were launched to save some of the remaining Rosenwald schools. In 2021, the Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald School Study Act (HR 3250) was enacted. The National Park Service initiated the Special Resources Study process in June 2022 to evaluate a shortlist of schools and sites in Rosenwald.