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Home NewsCNN Rosenwald Schools educated generations of Black Americans. Now, graduates are fighting to preserve their legacy.

Rosenwald Schools educated generations of Black Americans. Now, graduates are fighting to preserve their legacy.

by Johnson Jr.
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Originally Published: 01 FEB 24 06:45 ET

Updated: 01 FEB 24 10:12 ET

By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

(CNN) — Maudy Adkinson Johnson remembers walking across cow fields and busy roads as a child to get to her one-room schoolhouse in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

It was the 1950s, and Johnson said the Lee-Buckner School was teaching her how to read, write and do math problems. She was also making friends with other Black children.

Never once did she question why there were no White students at her school – instead, she said students were more focused on their education and building a sense of community.

“We never even talked about it being a difference in the races,” Johnson said. “We didn’t understand it.”

But whether the students knew it or not, Lee-Buckner was part of the Rosenwald Schools project — a broad effort to educate Black children in the rural South at a time when segregation prohibited them from attending White schools.

Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, launched the project in partnership withBlack American orator and president of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington.

Rosenwald, his nonprofit, The Rosenwald Fund, and members of the Black community raised funding for the construction of more than 5,000 schools, teacher homes and shops between 1912 and 1932, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools across the United States, there was less of a need for Rosenwald schools, said Rachael Finch, a historian and preservation consultant for the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County in Tennessee.

Many of the schools became vacant and faced demolition over the years, Finch said, adding roughly 10% of the schools are still standing today.

Among them is Lee-Buckner, which is scheduled to be moved by a tractor-trailer this week from Spring Hill to the Franklin Grove Estate & Gardens — a landmark historic site in downtown Franklin, Tennessee.

The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County is developing the site with a $35 million capital campaign, said Bari Beasley, president and CEO of the foundation. The site will open in 2025 for tourists, school field trips and local resident memberships, she said.

Beasley said the organization plans to restore and transform Lee-Buckner into a historic monument.

Former Lee-Buckner students also helped the Heritage Foundation draw renderings of where desks and other furniture were placed when they attended the school, so the room can be recreated, Beasley said.

Beasley said Lee-Buckner remains a critical piece of Black history that needs to be preserved and taught, especially amid ongoing efforts by some conservative lawmakers to limit or change Black history lessons in schools.

“I don’t think you can truly be authentic without telling the whole story,” Beasley said. “And to be able to talk about it and have difficult conversations helps us all understand the world around us and how to make the world a better place.”

Finch said the Lee-Bucker school is a national treasure because it symbolizes the resilience of Black Americans. After the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era, Finch said there was a movement of newly-freed Black slaves working to build churches, cemeteries and schools for their communities.

If their community didn’t have a schoolhouse, many Black children would study and learn in their living rooms, front yards, fields and church pews, according to the National Park Service.

Rosenwald Schools,Finch said, played a major role in expanding educational access for Black youth.

“These schools became beacons of hope,” Finch said. “One thing that African Americans craved and sought after the Civil War was access to education because access to education meant knowledge and power … to be able to propel oneself into place of prominence through owning a business, having a home, owning land.”

The Rosenwald Schools have notably educated prominent civil rights activists including the late Congressman John Lewis, poet Maya Angelou and Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963.

But after schools across the US were ordered to desegregate, many of the Rosenwald schools became vacant and faced demolition.

“They became shadows and shells of the past,” Finch said. “But that doesn’t mean the community forgot.”

Roy Brown, who attended Lee-Buckner from around 1954 to 1963, said the school was a staple in his close-knit community growing up.

Brown, 74, said he studied math, English, history and social studies at Lee-Bucker. He also recalled going outside to collect wood for fire to heat the school during the winter months.

“We had an opportunity through the founders of Rosenwald schools to learn what we would have never been taught at home,” Brown said.

Now a retired Franklin police officer, Brown said he is thankful that Lee-Buckner is being preserved by the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County.

“It shouldn’t be neglected,” he said, adding that the history and significance of schools like Lee-Buckner should be taught. “Whether you’re White or Black, you should learn about this history.”

Johnson, who is now a local pastor, said she keeps in touch with many of her classmates from Lee-Buckner. She said she is excited the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County is saving Lee-Buckner and not allowing it to be demolished.

Johnson said she takes pride in this part of Black history.

“Not just because we had our own school,” she said. “But it gave us a chance (to learn) … a chance that we would not have had any other way.”

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Rosenwald Schools history

**This image is for use with this specific article only** A classroom in the old Mount Sinai Junior High School, a “Rosenwald School,” that was built for rural Black Americans during the Jim Crow era near Prattville, Alabama.

Jay Reeves/AP

01 Feb 24

Rosenwald Schools history

**This image is for use with this specific article only** A historic photo of students at a Rosenwald School. The schools educated generations of Black Americans, including prominent graduates like the late John Lewis and poet Maya Angelou.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

01 Feb 24

Rosenwald Schools history

**This image is for use with this specific article only** Rosenwald graduates from left, Leonora Gross, 79, Norman Hall, 80, Mae Williams, and Corinthia Ridgley Boone, 80, gather at the Ridgeley School in Capitol Heights, Maryland, in 2015.

Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

01 Feb 24

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