Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington in Fairfax
Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) forged one of the most significant collaborations between Black and Jewish people, with the purpose of promoting civil rights in America. Rosenwald grew up in a German-Jewish immigrant community of Springfield, Illinois. He was not content to work as a hometown high school dropout. While he knocked on doors to sell souvenir brochures during his teenage years, Rosenwald yearned for a chance to thrive in big-city business. In 1895, his opportunity arose when he moved to Chicago and entered the apparel manufacturing industry with his cousin Julius Weil. They invested in a faltering mail-order firm known as Sears, Roebuck & Co. Rosenwald ascended to new heights in that company, eventually reaching the chairman’s seat.[i]
Rosenwald was active in the Chicago Jewish community. He admired Emil Hirsch, a Reform Rabbi of the Sinai Congregation seeking social justice. Inspired by the Jewish concept of tikkun olam—repairing the world—Rosenwald decided to channel his income into philanthropy. The motto give-while-you-live inspired him to make a difference. Rosenwald aimed to redress inequality at home and abroad. His generous donations soon went to the NAACP, Conference of Jewish Social Workers, and initiatives to resettle Russian Jews in Palestine. It must be noted that Rosenwald was deeply skeptical that Zionism could become the founding principal of any nation, particularly a modern state in the Middle East.[ii]
After reading Booker T. Washington’s biography, Up from Slavery, Rosenwald became his “follower” in the journey to improve the economic and social life outcomes of African Americans in the South. Rosenwald traveled to Alabama and met Washington (1856-1915), who invited the visitor to join the trustees of Tuskegee University. Rosenwald and his wife Augusta Nusbaum (1868-1929) then embarked on “annual pilgrimages . . . to see Booker T. Washington’s philosophy in action.” At Tuskegee she “conducted seminars on baking and sewing.” Her husband walked the campus and gave “out cash bonuses on the spot to faculty members who impressed him.” Students also received “huge discounts on Sears surplus merchandise.”[iii]
Most important, Washington enlightened the Rosenwalds, explaining that deficient school instruction was the primary barrier to Black advancement and mobility. Since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, “white southerners [had] regained control of the region.” This political transformation resulted in “gross inequities in educational funding and official support” that disadvantaged African American children and adults. Still, “Black activists,” like Washington, were unbowed, “savvy and persistent.” His remarkable ability to cultivate alliances with wealthy devotees sustained his “inter-racial” fellowship with the couple from Chicago. Their mutual admiration, buoyed too by white paternalism, led to the creation of the Rosenwald Fund, which financed the construction of 5,000 (mostly primary) schools throughout the South. [vi]
Between 1917 and 1932, Julius Rosenwald’s Fund enabled Black communities in Virginia to erect 382 buildings with classrooms.[x] While the brick and mortar were subsidized by the philanthropist, local contributions, including matching monies, were equally instrumental. Four Rosenwald schools dotted Fairfax County; one of these educational institutions was located near Ox Road (Route 123) and the University Drive entrance to GMU. The background story is intriguing. In 1922, the all-white School Board referenced in meeting minutes an encounter with a group of “colored people from the Town.” This “delegation” brought title to 1.25 acres and an application “for a new building” that “Negro” students and teachers intended to use. The Board deliberated with the county’s “Div. Supt. . . . [who eventually stipulated] that $900.00 should be secured from the Rosenwald Fund” for a two-room school.[xi]
By the next year, local Black citizens had secured a grant from the Rosenwald Fund. As they prepared for construction in 1925, a segregationist Commonwealth Attorney, Wilson M. Farr (1884-1959), was asked to evaluate the project.[xii] He was the son of Richard “Tobe” Ratcliffe Farr II (1845-1892), the late “Superintendent of Public Instruction” for the entire state. Richard R. Farr II developed the Commonwealth’s public education system in the late 19th century, with completely separate “white and colored” infrastructure.[xiii] He was a proud Southern "gentleman." As a teenager, Richard R. Farr II saddled up the mounted Confederate military (Mosby’s “Partisan” Rangers, Company B) to defend his plantation way of life and widowed slaveholding mother.[xiv]
Wilson Farr did not hold up the project, probably because the planned building was for “colored” pupils.[xvi] The two rooms were completed in 1926. About three decades later Wilson Farr brought his property title to another (advisory) board regulating educational matters. He was finalizing the sale of his (co-owned) 146 acres near the Rosenwald site. Wilson Farr had an inkling that he might have a hand in establishing a new branch of the University of Virginia named for George Mason on land that he offered at a steep discount.[xvii]
By LaNitra Berger and Benedict Carton
[i] Abraham Aamidor, “‘Cast down Your Bucket Where You Are’: The Parallel Views of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald on the Road to Equality,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 99, 1 (2006), 46-47; Stephen Whitfield, “From Patronage to Pluralism: Jews in the Circulation of African American Culture,” Modern Judaism 33, 1 (2013), 4-7. Biographical information about Julius Rosenwald was drawn from a burgeoning body of scholarship. See, for example: Peter Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (Indiana University Press, 2006); Hasia Diner, Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017); M. Werner, Julius Rosenwald: The Life of a Practical Humanitarian (New York: 1939).
[ii] Aamidor, “Cast down Your Bucket,” 56-58; Lawrence Bachmann, “Julius Rosenwald,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 66, 1 (1976), 92-105.
[iii]No author, “Julius Rosenwald: The Great American Philanthropist Who Decided What Blacks Should Teach,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 24 (1999), 53; Stephanie Deutsch, You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015); Andrew Feller, A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2021). Washington’s Tuskegee family maintained a warm rapport with the Rosenwald couple: Letter Margaret James Murray Washington, Tuskegee, to August Nusbaum Rosenwald, Chicago, 30 November 1915 in Louis Harlan and Raymond Smock eds. The Booker T. Washington Papers Volume 13: 1914-15 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 470. The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers and graduate of Fisk University, Margaret James Murray Washington (1865-1925) was the principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and third wife of Booker T. Washington. She arranged the Memphis-based Women’s Inter-Racial Conference, which advocated for cooperation between segregated Americans.
[iv] Booker T. Washington, Bain News Service, George Grantham Bain Collection, LC-B2- 1055-7 [P&P], 2014685040, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, LC-DIG-ggbain-05046, https://www.loc.gov/item/2014685040/.
[v] “Julius Rosenwald & Wife” (no date), Bain News Services, George Grantham Bain Collection, LC-B2- 6569-12 [P&P], 2014719342, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, ggbain 39203 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.39203, https://www.loc.gov/item/2014719342/.
[vi] Brian Daugherity and Alyce Miller, “A New Era in Building: African American Educational Activism in Goochland County, Virginia, 1911-32,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 128, 1 (2020), 44-45; Feller, A Better Life for Their Children.
[vii] “Teachers of [Agents of] Rosenwald rural schools,” 1916, LOT 13164-F, no. 29 [P&P], Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004670111/.
[ix] Jackson Davis (1882-1947), Photographer, 1923, http://www.lib.virginia.edu/small/collections/jdavis/about.html. Associated with the International Missionary Council, Davis conducted different field trips, traveling to South Africa in the twentieth century to record with his camera local school life: Jackson Davis Personal Photographs, Accession #3072-I; for Davis’s Liberia tour and album images, see Jackson Davis Liberia Photographs, 1944, Accession #3072-e; Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.
[x] Phyllis McClure, “Rosenwald Schools in the Northern Neck,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 113, 2 (2005), 114-45; Daugherity and Miller, “A New Era in Building,” 40-85. Rosenwald School Architectural Survey, https://preservationvirginia.org/our-work/architectural-rosenwald-school-survey/. The extraordinary network of Rosenwald Schools is chronicled in Mary Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006); see also: Kofi Boone, "Enabling Connection to Empower Place: The Carolinas,” in Walter Hood and Grace Tada, eds. Black Landscapes Matter (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2020), 61-62.
[xi] Minutes of the 18th Meeting of the Fairfax County School Board, 4 June 1923, Meeting Minutes of Fairfax County School Board, Gatehouse Administration Center, Fairfax, VA, https://insys.fcps.edu/schoolboardapps/ArchivedSBMinutes/1920-1929/19230604r.pdf. The authors sincerely thank Jeff Davis for his generous expertise and digitized Fairfax School Board meeting minutes.
[xii] Minutes of the 6TH Meeting of the County School Board, 5 October 1925, Meeting Minutes of Fairfax County School Board, Gatehouse Administration Center, Fairfax, VA, https://insys.fcps.edu/schoolboardapps/ArchivedSBMinutes/1920-1929/19251095r.pdf.
[xiii] Richard Farr II’s views of white supremacy and segregated education are featured in his profession’s trade journal: The Educational Journal of Virginia 17, 2 (1886), 85; Clayton Phillips, “Education in Virginia under Superintendent Richard Ratcliffe Farr, 1882-1886” (MA Thesis, University of Virginia, 1932), 77-79, 97.
[xiv] During the Civil War, Margaret C. Farr had lost her house in a blaze set by troops of the Union army in 1862. Her residence, situated on the present campus near the intersection of Route 620 and Route 123, was Richard R Farr II’s childhood haven: Philip Bruce, Virginia: Rebirth of the Old Dominion (Chicago: Lewis Publishing, 1929), 172; Clayton Phillips, “Education in Virginia under Superintendent Richard Ratcliffe Farr, 1882-1886” (MA Thesis, University of Virginia, 1932), 37; Letter, Edith Farr Elliot, Fairfax, to Dr. Reid, Fairfax, 13 November 1964, Box 3, Series 2; Letter, Edith Elliot, Fairfax, to Dr. Shannon, Fairfax, 5 August 1970, Folder 16, Box 14; Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University, Fairfax.
[xv] Photo imaged from James Williamson, Company A, Mosby’s Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion of the Virginia Calvary from its Organization to Surrender, 2nd Edition (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1909), 22.
[xvi] Minutes of the 6TH Meeting of the County School Board, 5 October 1925, Meeting Minutes of Fairfax County School Board, Gatehouse Administration Center, Fairfax, VA, https://insys.fcps.edu/schoolboardapps/ArchivedSBMinutes/1920-1929/19251095r.pdf. Wilson Farr’s property, which was previously maintained by the late Richard Ratcliffe Farr II, extended to School Street. The Commonwealth Attorney was a geographic neighbor of the (Rosenwald-funded) petitioners and probably knew some of them. Farr Land Chain, Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center, Virginia.
[xvii] Letter, Edith Farr Elliot, Fairfax, to Dr. Reid, Fairfax, 13 November 1964, Box 3, Series 2; Letter Howard Smith, Washington, DC, to Edith Farr Elliot, Fairfax, 3 October 1963; Letter, Howard Smith, Washington, DC, to Charles Fenwick, Washington, DC, 3 October 1963; Letter, Howard Smith, Washington, DC, to Edith Farr Elliot, 8 October 1963; Box 4 Series 2; Letter, Edith Elliot, Fairfax, to Dr. Shannon, Fairfax, 5 August 1970, Folder 16, Box 14; Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University, Fairfax. Four years after Wilson M Farr transferred his tact to UVA the US Civil Rights Commission determined that George Mason College was a segregated “whites-only” school: Letter, Howard Rogerson (Acting), US Commission on Civil Rights Washington, DC, to Mr. Finley, Director GMC, 25 November 1963; US Commission on Civil Rights, Desegregated-Segregated Status of Institutions of Higher Learning in the Southern United States, 15 November 1963; US Commission on Civil Rights Virginia Segregated -Public, 29, 15 November 1963; Box 4, Series 2, Early History, Office of the President Records, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. These claims by the US Commission on Civil Rights upset school administrators who responded with qualifying admissions: “It is true that we have never had a negro student, but no negro has ever applied,” college president Shannon replied, adding that “we do not exert the same effort to recruit negro high school seniors that we exert in the recruitment of white students”: Letter J.N.G Finley, Director GMC, Fairfax, to Howard Rogerson, US Commission on Civil Rights, Washington, DC, 5 December 1963; Letter Robert Reid, Director GMC, to Howard Rogerson, US Commission on Civil Rights, Washington, DC, 20 March 1964.