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Born to Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company and turn it into the world’s largest retailer. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington became the founding principal of Tuskegee Institute. In 1912 the two men launched an ambitious program to partner with black communities across the segregated South to build public schools for African American children. This watershed moment in the history of philanthropy—one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and African Americans—drove dramatic improvement in African American educational attainment and fostered the generation who became the leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
Of the original 4,978 Rosenwald schools built between 1912 and 1937 across fifteen southern and border states, only about 500 survive. While some have been repurposed and a handful remain active schools, many remain unrestored and at risk of collapse. To tell this story visually, Andrew Feiler drove more than twenty-five thousand miles, photographed 105 schools, and interviewed dozens of former students, teachers, preservationists, and community leaders in all fifteen of the program states.
The book and exhibition of this work is A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America. The exhibition is on view at the Filson through August 4, 2023. Author, photographer, and exhibition curator Andrew Feiler will share images and stories from his extraordinary journey into the history of Rosenwald schools.
This program is made possible by the Jewish Heritage Fund.