Sweet Union, Texas is listed in a guide to East Texas as the best place to hold a wedding. The Handbook of Texas notes that it was once called "Hogjaw," in reference to a place where a stolen hog's head was found, and used as evidence against a local man accused of pork theft. Along with that colorful history, the town also sports a valuable marker in its school, which fell silent in 1964 when the school district was consolidated.

This year the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Rosenwald schools as one of America's most endangered historic places. These sites, long abandoned, record essential history.

In 1913 Julius Rosenwald began an unusual philanthropic campaign to build schools for black communities across the South. He was joined in the effort by our nation's best known African American educator, Booker T. Washington. Over the next 20 years Rosenwald financed the building of more than 5,000 schools across 15 states. His approach, grounded in Washington's commitment to self-sufficiency, pioneered the "matching grant" mode of giving, and involved the entire community in a financial and personal commitment to the school.

Texas is home to an estimated 500 of those schools, most of which have long since vanished. Those few school houses that remain are in desperate need of repair. Their legacy is more than merely frames and flooring: before the civil rights era, the only public gathering places for African Americans were churches and schools. The schools served to transform their communities not only by the promise of education, but through the empowerment of community. Rosenwald's schools were more than buildings: they had a core curriculum developed by Booker T. Washington himself.

In Texas, education among rural African Amercans was critical. After the Civil War, former slaves throughout the South found work as menial labor, often in positions they had previously filled as slaves. Education, with its promise of other jobs and other life choices gave them a way out of poverty.

Rosenwald was a high school dropout who became a millionaire in the retail trade. After successfully building his own business in Chicago, Illinois, he became vice-president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, when it moved to that city in 1893. With Rosenwald as president and CEO, Sears grew to become the nation's largest retailer. The heavy Sears catalog your folks used as a doorstop was Rosenwald's brainchild. At the turn of the 20th century rural America ordered everything from lace-up boots to build-it-yourself houses from Sears.

Not only did he invent the mail-order business, Rosenwald pioneered employee savings and profit-sharing plans. Yet Rosenwald's legacy is greater even than the innovation of catalog sales and wage improvements. His philanthropic efforts funded not just schools for rural African Americans, but Jewish relief agencies in Russia and the Middle East, and buildings and programs for many YMCAs and YWCAs.

Few have ever transformed the social landscape as Julius Rosenwald did. Yet today, little evidence remains. Like the town of Sweet Union, most of the rural communities his schools served have faded into ghost towns.

More by Retha Oliver



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