Today, Florence Elementary School on Penny Road is a thriving segment of the Guilford County School System. Its success is due to a man who may have never visited North Carolina.
Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald was president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 1910-25. Like his friend, former slave Booker T. Washington, he was concerned about the poor quality of education (if there was any at all) for Blacks in the South. A 2015 documentary, “Rosenwald: A Remarkable Story of a Jewish Partnership with African-American Communities”, was produced. Apparently, Rosenwald was shocked when he learned of the anti-Jewish pograms in Russia and realized America’s treatment of Negroes was no better.
According to HistorySouth.org, “by 1915, public schools in North Carolina spent $7.40 per white pupil but only $2.30 per Black pupil.”
“By the early 20th century, most schools for African Americans across the South were underfunded and in serious disrepair,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Rosenwald believed education was the key to the success of Blacks and established the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to increase educational opportunities for Blacks in the rural South.
Prior to Rosenwald, most of the education of Blacks had been done post-Civil War as part of the Freedman’s Bureau. Judith Mendenhall operated a Freedman’s school in Jamestown.
North Carolina Governor O. Max Gardner said about the schools in 1931: “The contribution which Mr. Julius Rosenwald has made to the building of schoolhouses for colored children in North Carolina has stimulated our people of both races to provide good schools for these children.”
At the same meeting, State Superintendent A. T. Allen said,” “The rapidity with which the work of the Julius Rosenwald Fund has spread over the country in recent years shows us the enthusiastic way in which it has been received by everybody concerned.
“The whole story is an inspiring one. It lends courage and hope, not only to the colored people themselves, but also to all those who are trying to aid them in establishing an adequate school system for their children.”
By the time the Fund ended in 1932, North Carolina had constructed more Rosenwald structures than any other Southern state — 813 buildings, including teachers’ residences and industrial education shops.
Two of these schools were in the Florence community, on the same site as today’s elementary school.
According to information from the North Carolina Museum of History, school building committees had a catalog of stock blueprints, floor plans and exterior renderings from which to choose so “any rural community could build a top-flight facility without architects’ fees.”
There had been previous schools for Black children in Florence in the past, but the community opted to become part of the Rosenwald system. They picked floor plan No. 20 for the original design in 1916 and No. 5 for the replacement in 1927 when overcrowding became a problem. The original school was a standard two-room wooden schoolhouse with a room for cooking and sewing instruction. It was probably staffed by two teachers. The new brick building had four classrooms and an auditorium and was designed for seven teachers. It was built on the Nashville Plan and was “to face east or west only”.
According to Jamestown historian Mary Browning, “The old red brick Florence School building … was torn down without much ceremony.”
Designed as a matching grant system, local communities were asked to provide labor, materials and, in some cases, land.
The N.C. Museum of History notes that raising local money for Rosenwald schools was no simple task among the Black cotton and tobacco tenant farmers of North Carolina. However, rallies raised both cash donations and pledges, often a penny and a nickel at a time.
Leon R. Harris, a Black man and writer, began teaching at what he termed the “Florence community Negro school” in 1912, continuing to 1914. Unhappy with his work in Virginia, Harris had jumped a freight train going south, ending up in High Point. He got a job as a farmer with a Mr. Lyons in Florence. When Lyons gave up farming, Harris was asked to teach at the school, using his training from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute. Locals urged him to get teaching credentials.
“I took the examination and was given a first-grade certificate.” Harris said in an article in the April 15, 1956, Greensboro Daily News. “The Negroes [sic] were proud and happy. No teacher with a first-grade certificate had ever taught their school.
“The compulsory school attendance law went into effect that year. The Florence school had never had an enrollment over 40. My enrollment was 80. The second year it rose to over 100.”
Soon, word of the school spread not only to the Black community but also to the whites, who were invited by Blacks to attend.
“The little schoolhouse was running over,” Harris said. “One day Prof. [Thomas R.] Foust, our County Superintendent of Schools, and two of the Education Board members came out to visit us. Prof. Foust got no further than the door.
“‘Where did all these children come from?’ he asked me.
“‘We must have a new building before next term,’” I told him.
Harris had heard of the Rosenwald Fund and investigated. Since the Florence church was the center of community life, the community decided the new school should be near the church.
“All of us got together, white and Negro,” Harris continued. “The white people donated all the timber for the rough lumber and some gave money. I took my axe into the woods with the others. We felled the trees, cut the logs and hauled them to the sawmill. But every sill under that schoolhouse was hand-hewn.”
Unfortunately, due to family matters Harris had to leave the area before he had a chance to teach in the new school. But as he left, he said his farewells to good friend Clay Briggs, whose descendants still live in the Florence community.
The Rosenwald schools effort has been called the most important initiative to advance Black education in the early 20th century, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Although references differ in numbers, the Rosenwald Fund was nonetheless very successful. When the school-building program ended in 1932, approximately 5,357 Rosenwald structures had been built in 883 counties in 15 states at a cost of between $24.4-28.4 million. They served more than 7,000,000 Black children. By 1928, one-third of the South’s rural Black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald Schools. Only about 500 buildings remain.
New efforts have been launched to save some of the remaining Rosenwald Schools. In 2021, the Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools Study Act (H.R. 3250) was signed into law. The National Park Service launched the special resource study process in June 2022 to evaluate a select list of Rosenwald Schools and sites.