What do Anne Arundel County, Sears (rest in peace), and Booker T. Washington have in common? The influence and dedication of a man named Julius Rosenwald.
Julius Rosenwald was known best for being one of the wealthiest men in the country as the president and chairman for Sears, Roebuck and Company, but he was also a philanthropist and civil rights advocate. The Rosenwald Fund, created in 1917 by Julius Rosenwald and his family, donated over $70 million to public schools, colleges, black institutions, and museums..
With the help Booker T. Washington, a prominent leader in the African American community, they helped build over 5,000 one-room schoolhouses all over the Jim Crow South, and three of them sit right here in Anne Arundel County!
Pumphrey Elementary School
It has since been converted into a private residence, but this marker stands to honor the commitment of not only the Rosenwald Foundation, but also the local community that rallied behind its construction. As part of the founding principles of the Rosenwald Fund, African American communities were given “seed grants” to kickstart the construction of one-room school houses around the south, but the completion of these projects was dependent on the locals – both in matching funds and labor efforts.
Inspired by the schoolhouse efforts of the Rosenwald Foundation, activist groups around Anne Arundel County followed suit. The blueprints for the “Rosenwald Schools” were considered to be the most progressive designs of the time, and were used throughout the southern United States. In Hanover, Maryland, the Benevolent Sons and Daughters of Abraham followed a Rosenwald School design that stayed in use until 1955.
Perhaps the oldest community to be given grant money by the Rosenwald Fund, Freetown was founded on the principles of “self-sufficiency and cooperation typical of African American Communities.” Keeping the momentum going, schools and meeting houses continued to pop up around Freetown, guided by the Freetown Community Association.
When the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation (Brown v. Board of Education) was implemented in the 1960’s and 1970’s, many of these schools found new life as living quarters for school teachers, community gathering halls, and even private residences. So, next time you drive past a Sears, make sure to say a little “thank you” to the man who not only gave us a staple in every mall across America, but also helped inspire hundreds of thousands of African American children to rise into positions of power, including famous names such as Maya Angelou and W.E.B. DuBois.
Images courtesy of The University of Chicago Library/Ciesla Foundation and the Maryland Historical Trust