NEW ORLEANS, October 26, 2023 – A new Special Exhibition, A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America, will open at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE), in New Orleans, on November 17, 2023, and run through April 21, 2024.
Through photographs taken and stories collected by photographer Andrew Feiler, a fifth-generation Jewish Georgian, the exhibit tells the unique history of how Sears, Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald and Tuskegee Institute principal Booker T. Washington conceptualized and implemented a plan to provide better educational opportunities for Black children across the South in the early 20th century through the network of Rosenwald schools. Feiler tracked down and photographed more than 100 of the 500 schools still surviving across fifteen Southern states.
The Rosenwald-Washington partnership marks one of the earliest between the Jewish and Black communities. The two visionaries met the unique challenges of institutionalized segregation with originality and innovation, establishing one of the first public-private partnerships between local communities, donors, and the state. Between 1917 and 1932, 4,977 schoolhouses were built; each was supported by multiple sources, including the Rosenwald Fund, local school boards, and local Black communities. In this way, Rosenwald and Washington promoted collaboration between Black and white communities and established a high standard for Black-Jewish relations, which was later carried over into the Civil Rights era. Between World War I and World War II, the persistent Black-white education gap that had plagued the South narrowed significantly, largely thanks to Rosenwald schools.
Counted among the thousands of African American graduates of Rosenwald schools is poet Maya Angelou, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Little Rock Nine pioneer Carlotta Walls LaNier, and Congressman John Lewis.
Feiler believes the story of the Rosenwald schools is particularly resonant now. “In deeply segregated 1912 America, Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington reached across divides of race, religions, and region and fundamentally changed this nation for the better,” he notes. Feiler adds, “It’s especially fitting that these photographs and stories that bring people into this history are being hosted by the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.”
Despite their large impact in the South, the story of the Rosenwald schools is not widely known. Through Feiler’s exhibition, the Museum hopes to change that. “MSJE is proud to be part of bringing this story in front of the public eye. The history of the Rosenwald schools is also the history of the South and the many diverse people and actors who have shaped it,” says Kenneth Hoffman, Executive Director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.
MSJE will run a full program of events centered around the exhibit, including a talk by Feiler; multiple screenings of Rosenwald, a documentary film produced by Aviva Kempner; a lecture by Stephanie Deutch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse; and a panel discussion with Rosenwald School graduates. A bespoke field trip has been designed to introduce students to this important part of American history. A full list of the event schedule can be found here.
This Special Exhibition is made possible thanks to support from Bill & Susan Hess and the Cahn Family Foundation. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) is a media partner.