In Memphis, Tennessee, where I live, the evidence is abundant that our country has not yet achieved racial equality. African Americans make up 61% of the metropolis' population, and a recent report revealed that 24% of the population lives below the poverty level. Stephanie Deutsch's You Need a Schoolhouse reminds us that, although we have a long way to go to achieve equality, our country has made notable strides in the 146 years since the end of the Civil War.
Deutsch's husband's great-grandfather was Julius Rosenwald, who made a vast fortune as president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Unlike some of his more well-known contemporaries (i.e., Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford), Rosenwald did not establish eponymous charitable foundations or erect buildings to commemorate his name. Instead, Rosenwald, whose Chicago rabbi preached a "practical Judaism, anchored in the moral choices of this world rather than in the hope of the next,” devoted much of his vast fortune to charity. During her research for the book, Deutsch discovered that Rosenwald collaborated with one of his close friends, Booker T. Washington, to build schools in rural areas of the South to educate poor, African American children.
That Rosenwald and Washington became friends would seem unlikely, considering their remarkably different backgrounds: Rosenwald's Jewish father emigrated from Germany and was a successful businessman; Washington was born into slavery on a farm in Virginia and never knew his white father. Rosenwald dropped out of high school to apprentice with his uncles in their New York City clothing business; Washington was determined to change his destiny of poverty, and with his intelligence, hard work, and a few well-placed benefactors, he completed his education. By the time the two men met in 1911, Rosenwald had amassed a considerable fortune and had become a popular philanthropist; Washington had established the Tuskegee Institute, and many considered him the heir of Frederick Douglass as the voice of the African American people.
Deutsch has written an engaging book that weaves history lessons throughout her stories about Rosenwald and Washington, their lives, and their individual and joint accomplishments. The writer orients the reader in time by including in the narrative the date on which the events, which do not follow chronologically, occurred. The book bulges with historical data and statistics and illustrates pertinent information about the country's economic and political development. Deutsch fleshes out the men's personalities and engages the reader in their stories by sharing passages from personal correspondence as well as quotes from public speeches.
The men shared many common philosophies, even though their backgrounds and lives could hardly have been more different. Both Rosenwald and Washington were pragmatists and were "eager to move forward not just with ideas and words but also with action.” Their lives exemplified hard work, self-reliance, thrift, and service to others, values that they lived by and encouraged others to practice. Both men were thrifty and believed that the best way to help a person was to provide him/her with the tools to take care of himself/herself. In addition to his job as founder and principle of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington worked on the site alongside the teachers and students who cleared the land, cleaned the buildings, and prepared the fields for planting. Students would learn to farm by tending the crops, which they would sell, using the profits to sustain the school. Rosenwald frequently attached a stipulation to his generous financial support, insisting that his recipients first raise funds to match his donation. The men applied these philosophies to their schools project and built almost five thousand schools. A community that requested Rosenwald's money to build a school was required to first raise an equal amount of money; people in the community then procured the supplies and provided the labor to construct the building.
Neither Rosenwald, who died in 1932, nor Washington, who died in 1915, would live to see the end of segregation. The Civil Rights movement peaked between 1955 and 1965, culminating in the racial integration of public schools. Ironically, the cause that Rosenwald and Washington devoted so much of their lives to also made redundant the segregated Rosenwald schools.
In this educational and engaging book, Stephanie Deutsch brings to life two men with high moral character who joined their efforts at a crucial time in our nation's history to educate children whose families had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but were subsequently abandoned to poverty and illiteracy. Deutsch’s inspirational book reminds us that although we haven't yet achieved racial equality, thanks in part to Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, we have made progress.