Arts and Culture

In the early 20th century, schools for African-American children were usually underfunded and ramshackle, if they existed at all. Rural areas often only had white schools, leaving black children without opportunities for formal education.

A Jewish businessman from Chicago decided to do what he could to change that.

The documentary “Rosenwald” tells the story of Julius Rosenwald, who led Sears and Roebuck from 1908 to 1932, and who was heavily influenced by his friendship with civil rights leader Booker T. Washington. Encouraged by Washington, Rosenwald became interested in helping African-Americans, eventually establishing a foundation that would support building nearly 5,000 schools in 15 states.

“Rosenwald” will be screened this week as part of the Louisville Jewish Film Festival. Louisville historian (and outgoing Metro Council member) Tom Owen will speak before the screening.

There were 158 Rosenwald Schools in Kentucky, including seven in Jefferson County. Three of the buildings are still standing.

“In Jefferson County, outside the old boundary of the city of Louisville, before suburbanization, before white flight, there were small enclaves of African-American residents in essentially the agricultural world,” said Owen.

Most of the Rosenwald Schools were wood frame buildings, but the Jeffersontown school, built in 1929, was brick. It was known as the Jeffersontown Colored School until 1961, and the building is now owned by the First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown.

The Eastwood school, near the Parklands of Floyds Fork, is currently a private residence, and the Jacobs school, in the Harrods Creek community, is owned by a Masonic lodge.

In each community where a Rosenwald School was built, the Rosenwald fund would provide about one-third of the costs, Owen said. The local African-American community would provide another third, either through financial contributions or through sweat equity, with the final third being provided by the local or state board of education.

There were strict requirements for how a Rosenwald School would look and how it would be situated. The building had to be on a lot of at least 1 acre and had to be oriented toward the east so it would catch the morning sun. Many of the schools were in communities without electricity, so large windows were a must.

Owen said the Rosenwald Schools were inspirational for their communities.

“Say you had a scrappy, falling-down, dilapidated school that was inadequate to both purpose as well as inadequate for inspiration. You got a brand-new school, architecturally designed by Tuskegee architects, sitting there as a beacon of hope for the future,” Owen said.

“Rosenwald” will be shown at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Muhammad Ali Center. Tickets and more information available here.