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Shiloh Rosenwald School

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c. 1922; 2010–2015 restoration. 7794 AL 81.

In a region and state historically indifferent to free primary education, and often actively hostile to the teaching of African American students, the Rosenwald school movement proved a major catalyst in rural school development. Energized by the spirit of social progressivism that swept America during the early decades of the twentieth century, the movement produced scores of modest yet thoughtfully designed buildings—ones like Shiloh School—that embodied architecture with a larger social purpose at its most basic level. The initiative began experimentally in Alabama, but eventually impacted a total of fifteen southeastern and border states. Alabama, however, remained at the epicenter of the program, and between 1913 and 1932 no less than 382 schools were erected across the state with Rosenwald funding. Located mostly in underserved rural areas, the buildings were scattered from mountainous northeastern Alabama, where impoverished Appalachian whites were sometimes the target of Rosenwald assistance, to the “piney woods” of the Gulf Coast. But the greatest concentration of Rosenwald schools was in the predominantly black plantation counties stretching across south-central Alabama.

Today most of these buildings are gone, yet among an ever-diminishing number still standing, Shiloh is one of the best preserved thanks to the efforts of the Shiloh Community Restoration Foundation. Other school buildings in various stages of preservation, such as the Cecil and Tankersley schools in Montgomery County, the remote New Hope School in the Fredonia community of Chambers County, and the Oak Grove School in Hale County, are less physically altered. At none of these, however, can the full Rosenwald story, as it engaged with a typical rural black community, be better told than at Shiloh, where physical reclamation has been accompanied by an ongoing program of historical interpretation.

The Rosenwald school movement began more than a century ago, born out of a collaboration between Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, and Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, head of the Sears Roebuck Company. Long concerned with the plight of primary education among rural southern blacks, Washington seized the opportunity of Rosenwald’s 1911 visit to the Tuskegee campus to call the businessman’s attention to the dismal situation in the countryside immediately around Tuskegee. Washington pointed out the rude shanties that typically served as schools for black youngsters in rural Macon County —if indeed a community had a school at all. Struck by what he had seen and heard, Rosenwald, over the next three years, provided funds for the construction of half a dozen small wooden school buildings in the Tuskegee area, with their design based on simple, practical architectural plans developed jointly by Robert R. Taylor and W.A. Hazel of the Tuskegee faculty, and James Sibley of the Alabama State Department of Education.

In 1914, expanding on his original idea, Washington presented Rosenwald with a still more ambitious vision, one that would encourage local self-help. He proposed that the philanthropist offer seed money for communities willing to shoulder the responsibility of building a school, using as a match locally raised funds and, where possible, public monies, whether county or state. The next year, Washington and his Tuskegee colleague, Clinton J. Calloway, published a booklet, The Negro Rural School and its Relation to the Community, which contained not only the building plans earlier devised by Taylor, Hazel, and Sibley, but also covered topics ranging from the quality of blackboards to instructions on the best way to construct a school privy. Soon afterward, in the fall of 1915, Washington died suddenly. But Rosenwald carried out Washington’s vision. In 1917, when Julius Rosenwald and his family established the Rosenwald Foundation, “for the benefit of mankind” as its charter stated, funding the construction of African American schools throughout the South became one of its top priorities.

Founded by emancipated blacks soon after the Civil War and centered about its namesake Baptist church, the Shiloh community was typical of the isolated African American settlements to which Washington and Rosenwald hoped to bring greater educational opportunity. Most of the black farmers in the neighborhood were not plantation sharecroppers, but rather small, independent landowners. And it was they who, circa 1922, spearheaded action to erect a Rosenwald-supported school near the church. Foundation records reveal that, out of the total cost of $2,870 for the frame building, members of the community provided nearly half the funds. Another $900 came from the State, while the Rosenwald Foundation itself contributed $800. Similar projects elsewhere often brought contributions from local white residents as well—occasionally even donated land. But at Shiloh, this failed to be the case.

At first, floorplans and specifications for Rosenwald-assisted school buildings had continued to follow the guidelines developed and published in 1915 by Booker T. Washington and the Extension Department of the Tuskegee Institute. Sometime after 1920, these were revised and expanded (and, in 1924, compiled and published) under the supervision of Samuel F. Smith, director of the Rosenwald Foundation’s Southern Office in Nashville. The three-room Shiloh School adheres to one of the most common plan types advocated: the so-called “two teacher school.” Its overall footprint is that of a stubby T. In this arrangement, there were two large classrooms (one for each teacher) with separate outside entrances. A third “industrial room,” the short stem of the T, was shared by both teachers. Here boys learned trade skills to supplement their “book learning,” while girls were taught simple home economics. A cloakroom adjoined each classroom, while folding doors between the two rooms allowed them to be combined into a single large space for special occasions. At Shiloh, the first three grades were taught in one classroom, and grades four through six in the other.

Adapted to climate and circumstance, the frame building sat on high brick piers to allow ample air circulation underneath. While each classroom had a potbellied stove for Alabama’s short, mild winters, ceilings were lofty to cope with hot weather. Windows were also plentiful—both for cooling and in order to maximize natural light in a community that, like many others in rural Alabama, would not have electricity until the 1940s. Originally, a covered well supplied water for the school, while sanitary facilities consisted of two outhouses, one for boys and one for girls.

In due course, electricity, plumbing, and running water were introduced at Shiloh. There were also structural changes to the building including, most visibly, the foreshortening of the bank of windows lighting the west-facing industrial room. The two adjacent entrance stoops were also reconstructed.

Through the 1950s Shiloh continued to serve the children of the surrounding community. But with racial integration and an overall trend toward rural school consolidation, Shiloh and most other Rosenwald schools were closed. In 1965 the State of Alabama conveyed the property to the adjacent Shiloh Baptist Church, which cared for the building for the next four decades. In 2010, a surge of interest in Rosenwald schools sparked by the National Trust for Historic Preservation prompted a group of Shiloh alumnae to organize the Shiloh Community Restoration Foundation. Its purpose was to reclaim the school and maintain it as an historic site and community meeting place. The same year, Shiloh was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With support from community leaders, volunteers, the Alabama Historical Commission, and nearby Tuskegee and Auburn universities, the Foundation launched a phased rehabilitation that continued over a five-year period. It was completed in 2015, and included the installation of a permanent exhibit addressing the history of Shiloh as well as the larger significance of the Rosenwald movement itself. Visited regularly by local school and civic groups, Shiloh is also open to the general public by appointment.

References

Mansell, Jeff, “The Rosenwald School Building Fund and Associated Buildings (1913-1937).” National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, 1997. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Rosenwald Foundation. Community School Plans, Bulletin No. 3.Nashville: Julius Rosenwald Foundation, 1924.

Washington, Booker T., and Clinton J. Calloway. The Rural Negro School and its Relation to the Community.Tuskegee: Extension Department, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1915.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Robert Gamble
Coordinator: 
Robert Gamble
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Data

Timeline

  • 1921

    Built
  • 2010

    Restored

What's Nearby

Citation

Robert Gamble, "Shiloh Rosenwald School", [Notasulga, Alabama], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/AL-01-087-0097.

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