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During the Jim Crow era, Julius Rosenwald, president and chief executive officer of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago, forged a partnership with Booker T. Washington, president and founder of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama to build model schools for black communities across the South. They provided matching grants to local communities and county school systems and worked with local activists to cultivate grassroots support for each school. They also forged a broad coalition of local philanthropic organizations, both black and white, encouraging them to pool resources to raise matching funds and win over reluctant school superintendents and boards of education. Encouraging biracial community cooperation was almost as important to the Rosenwald/Washington partnership as providing good model schools.
Between 1913 and 1932 their partnership produced 5,300 schools and auxiliary buildings in fifteen southern states. When the program ended in 1932, one of every five African American schools in the South was a Rosenwald school. In Kentucky, there were 158 Rosenwald schools and buildings though, by the end of the century, 75 percent were no longer extant. One of Kentucky’s surviving buildings is the Middletown Consolidated School in Berea. It was built in 1927 when Berea College, which abolitionist John G. Fee founded in 1855, donated four acres of land to build the school and agreed to supply it with water and electricity.
L.N. Taylor, the Kentucky state agent for Negro schools, was responsible for the statewide coordination of the Rosenwald school-building campaign. State agents like Taylor were typically white men who used their professional connections to broker relationships between the philanthropic agencies that financed African American public education and the communities that wanted new schools. In Madison County, Taylor convinced the Board of Education to consolidate the Berea, Middletown, and Farristown colored school districts and build a four-room school on the Berea College land with Rosenwald and other funds.
Taylor was also responsible for insuring that new schools met the standards for sanitation, lighting, ventilation, and landscaping set by Rosenwald’s design experts, including Robert R. Taylor, the Tuskegee-based MIT graduate who is regarded as the nation’s first professionally trained African American architect. By the time the school at Berea was being planned, Taylor’s 1915 Rosenwald architectural handbook had been supplanted by later editions .
Officially dedicated on December 8, 1927, the Rosenwald school at Berea is a one-and-a-half-story, rectangular building with brick veneer and centrally-placed entrances on the main facade and the gable ends. Featuring three classrooms and a community room on the first floor, it appears to have been based largely on Community School Floor Plan No. 30 from the 1928 handbook called Community School Plans. A large folding door between the two rear classrooms could be opened to create a large space for special events like plays and commencement ceremonies. Each room on the first floor was fitted with bookshelves whose volumes comprised the school’s library. From the beginning the modern brick schoolhouse was equipped with electric lights and drinking water. Unusual for a Rosenwald school, this example includes a concrete-floored basement where the manual training and home economics classes were held.
Other features of the Middletown Consolidated School came to typify Rosenwald schools of this period, and ultimately progressive school architecture in general. These included exterior decoration limited to a few eave braces suggestive of the Mission Style and a central entrance protected by a projecting gable porch roof. Also typical were the batteries of tall, double-hung sash windows that maximized natural lighting and circulation; the building was oriented to insure that windows faced either east or west. Cloakrooms were designed to safeguard classroom hygiene as was the inclusion of two four-seat sanitary pit privies. Along with a playground, the privies were required for all Rosenwald schools.
Middletown Consolidated not only functioned as a school, it served as an important social center for the African American community. Many Madison County residents still identify the school’s teachers as important community leaders. Middletown Consolidated School closed in 1963 when local schools were integrated. The building was used for a few years to house a Head Start program and a community center, but then it sat vacant for nearly forty years. In 2007 it was rehabilitated to serve as the headquarters of Gear Up, a federal program administered by Berea College to help low-income middle school students complete high school and pursue higher education.
Few changes were made to the exterior of the historic school but the interior underwent a number of modifications. Most of the interior walls were reconfigured; all of the cloakrooms were removed; an elevator and bathroom were added; and the basement was entirely remodeled. The original folding door between the classrooms on the first level was retained, as was one of the privies. In 2014 two, one-story brick structures were erected immediately to the rear of the school to house expanding program spaces. In 2007 the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation included the Middletown rehabilitation project on its “Positive Preservation in the Bluegrass List.”
Community School Plans. Nashville: Julius Rosenwald Fund, 1928.
Hoffschwelle, Mary S. Preserving Rosenwald Schools.Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2003.
Hoffschwelle, Mary S. The Rosenwald School of the American South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.
Leggs, Brent. Condition Assessment Report: Kentucky Rosenwald Schools. Prepared for the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission, 1997.
Turley-Adams, Alicestyne. Rosenwald Schools in Kentucky, 1917–1932. Prepared for the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission, 1997.
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