Between 1918 and 1930, 15 Rosenwald schools were built in Robeson County, more than in any other county of the south. Only one stands today. The origins of the Fairmont, N.C., school are directly traced to the efforts of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, and its story is being preserved by a group of Robesonians.
In the early post-Civil War years, schools for black students typically lacked even the basic structures, equipment, teachers, books and other resources necessary to ensure a functional educational environment. Funding for black schools fell far short of that for white students, as much as a 12-to-1 differential.
According to The National Trust for Historic Preservation, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (today Tuskegee University), “preached a gospel of self-help for black southerners that emphasized economic advancement through vocational education without challenging racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters.”
In 1912, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, was drawn to Washington’s work, serving on the board of directors of Tuskegee Institute, the National Trust says. In 1912, he demonstrated his commitment to the school and to the philosophy with a gift of $25,000.
Although Rosenwald’s donation targeted Tuskegee Institute, he allowed Washington to use a small amount for the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama, which were constructed and opened in 1913 and 1914. Based on the success of these schools, Rosenwald established the Julius Rosenwald Foundation in 1917 and in 1920 a separate office for the building of similar schools. To promote collaboration between white and black citizens, Rosenwald required communities to commit public funds to the schools, as well as to contribute additional cash donations.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls the Rosenwald School Building Program the “most influential philanthropic force that came to the aid of Negroes at that time.” The Rosenwald Schools were awarded National Treasure status in 2011.
Robeson County schools
By 1932 when the program ended, there were 5,357 Rosenwald schoolhouses, workshops, and teacher’s homes in 883 counties of 15 states, erected at a total cost of $28.4 million, according to writings by the late Beulah Griffin Arnette, historian of the Fairmont chapter of Rosenwald Alumni. One in every five rural schools for black students in the South was a Rosenwald school, and these schools housed one-third of the region’s rural black schoolchildren and teachers.
In 2002, the Fairmont chapter tackled a project called “Remembering the Rosenwalds.” Arnette, who taught home economics at Rosenwald High School and later at Fairmont High School, wrote not only an objective history of the schools in Robeson County but captured the philosophies and passions that were their bedrock. Most of the words that follow are hers, excerpted from a paper written not long before her death in August 2011.
The first school for blacks in Fairmont was located in the South Quarters (Old Field) area. It was a two-story, neatly framed structure with two classrooms. Professor John H. Isley served as principal. He came to Fairmont from Lumberton in 1907. Funds for operating the school were limited. There were no chairs or benches for the two classrooms. Two benches and a few chairs were donated by First Baptist Church.
Professor Isley’s salary was $50 a month. A large amount of Isley’s $50 monthly salary was spent on books and supplies in order to continue the school’s operation. It was almost an unbearable struggle, but his love for the 65 students and educational progress in this area kept hope alive. One book accommodated 65 students for a while until another book was added after another month’s salary.
Interested parents and community residents helped in many ways, for example, by donating wood and cutting wood for iron stoves that were used for heating during winter months. Log stools and crude benches were made by the men in the community. A chalkboard was made from crude slabs that were shaped and made smooth to write on.
Dedicated parents took drinking water to the school each day in an old water pail with a hollowed gourd used as a dipper. Everyone drank from the same dipper. Lunches were taken to school to be enjoyed during recess, often to be heated on the iron stove.
A close neighbor’s outside toilet facility was used by both boys and girls. Shortly after the opening of the school, an outside toilet was built on the school grounds. It had a divided partition, with boys using one side and girls the other.
The school’s enrollment continued to increase, yet the classrooms remained the same. Teachers were added, and the classroom had to be shared with added teachers and additional students. The early school became crowded and a need for a more extensive structure became necessary. The original school was moved to the present site and Rosenwald School began operating in one brick building in the early 1920s.
The building contained eight classrooms and a small area for an auditorium. Land for the site was donated by a black business-minded person, Richard Bradshaw from Kingstree, S.C. He came to Fairmont with the Beaufort Lumber Company, worked as a wage earner and became one of the town’s most productive and successful men, as well as one of the greatest supporters of human and community progress.
The newly constructed building and anxious students had a new leader, Professor David T. Branch who served as principal from 1920-1931. At this time, Rosenwald was at a junior high level. After completing ninth grade, students had to attend the Thompson Institute in Lumberton in order to complete high school requirements.
Many of the old problems were repeated. Desks and books were secondhand, supplies were minimal and there was no method of transporting students to and from school. Potbellied stoves were still used for heating and outside toilet facilities were still used. Outside water fountains were installed and lunches packed at home were still a necessity.
In the fall of 1931, Professor Roland D. Cunningham came to Fairmont from South Boston, Va., full of new ideas and fresh with innovation. He knew things would not be easy but he set about getting the school accredited, or standardized as it was then referred to. To meet those requirements, the auditorium was partitioned into three classrooms and a library. More teachers were hired, more books were purchased.
Cunningham initiated the construction of a four-room brick high school, although his tenure ended before completion of the facility. Other accomplishments included an outside area for sports, upgrading the rest rooms and establishing a choral group. In Cunningham’s second year, the school achieved accreditation.
Enrollment increased as students traveled miles — from Lumberton, Hilly Branch, Barnesville, Proctorville, and Marietta, for example — to attend an accredited school.
In the fall of 1938, Leon Spencer, from Ossining, N.Y., became the school’s fifth principal. The newly completed high school opened, qualified teachers were in the classrooms and books were available to all students for a rental fee. He won the cooperation of parents with the formation of a PTA and through their interest and support, as well as that of the community, a cafeteria was built and free USDA food commodities were served.
Cinderblock buildings were constructed for agriculture and homemaking classes and for a sports arena, built by agriculture teacher Harry Hayes. The sports center was the source of considerable pride and drew fans from great distances. Many championship games were played in this arena, with Rosenwald winning a good number. Without bleachers, spectators sat on chairs or benches or stood against the walls.
A one-year term in 1947 by Joseph Davis was followed in 1948 by the tenure of Elister L. Peterson of Virginia, who served as principal during a period of skyrocketing enrollment and facility growth. In 1951, the purchase of a little more than seven acres made facility expansion possible. A music department and a band room added spice to the school program. More Rosenwald graduates entered colleges and universities and 70 percent of them finished college on time. A popular sixth-grade teacher and basketball coach, Percy E. Shaw, was tapped as the next principal. Not only was he a dynamic coach, he was known as an innovative teacher.
Remembering the Rosenwalds is a countywide oral history project in Robeson County. In 2002 the Project was funded by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council to the Afro-American Cultural Center of Robeson County and the North Carolina Rosenwald Schools Community Project in association with the Sankofa Center. Much of the history told here results from that project and other work supported by both the North Carolina and the national Historic Preservation Offices. The Fairmont chapter of the Rosenwald Alumni Association members interviewed former students and others in order to obtain as complete and accurate accounts of the schools, teachers, students and community relationships as possible.
As historian, Beulah Arnette recorded the information gathered in the local project. In writing about Rosenwald School after the 1969 integration of Fairmont schools, she noted that significant improvements followed. For example, mobile units added classroom space, more teachers were hired, more office space was made available. With integration, the school’s name changed to Fairmont Elementary School until 16 years later when Rosenwald alumni lobbied for a return to the name Rosenwald Elementary School. Lanes McLean served as principal from July 1978 until June 1994.
Arnette, who taught in Scotland County before teaching at Rosenwald and Fairmont high schools, received a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina A&T and also studied at North Carolina Central and Howard universities. Her love and respect for all the Rosenwald schools, and specifically for those in Fairmont, can be seen in the conclusion to her historical writings:
“Rosenwald School was a model that produced productive and high achievers. From the seeds planted here have sprung doctors, attorneys, well-known ministers, bankers, homemakers, farmers, career military persons, politicians, professional athletes, teachers, electricians, dieticians, mothers, fathers and good citizens. How proud we should be of their roots.
“As a committee, we think the true discovery of our own democracy in education is still before us. We think the true fulfillment of our spirit of our people, of our immortal land, is yet to come. We feel that we speak for most when we say there is yet a dream to be accomplished. Let us as a people make our own history, record our own cultural attitudes and bring our past to the present and our present to the future.”