Chapel Hill’s Rosenwald School

The Roots of the Piedmont conference recently held by Preservation Chapel Hill and Orange County featured a panel on the Rosenwald Schools in North Carolina. Julius Rosenwald, the son of a German-Jewish immigrant who led Sears, Roebuck & Co. to its position, in 1909, as the largest retailer in the world, felt a special obligation to help African Americans. “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer,” he wrote in 1911.

Attracted to Booker T. Washington’s ideas for creating rural schools for blacks, he teamed up with Washington on a big idea: a matching grant fund to build the schools. The Rosenwald story is well known, but I had never known that North Carolina had more of them than any state: more than 800.

Why was that? Was it because, thanks to North Carolina’s Reconstruction Constitution of 1868, a free public education was a given right? In separate schools to be sure–that was guaranteed after Plessy v. Ferguson–but the constitutional right to a public education was not something that the people of most states, or many states, could claim. For reasons I wish I knew more about, black communities across North Carolina were highly motivated to start their own schools through the Rosenwald program.

One of them, the largest of four in Orange County, was in Chapel Hill. The Orange County Training School, founded in 1917 but destroyed by fire in 1922, was rebuilt with Rosenwald funds 1924 in the Northside neighborhood. This school evolved into Lincoln High School, which served as Chapel Hill’s all-black high school until desegregation was implemented in 1966 (12 years after Brown v. Board of Education). The Southern Oral History Program’s interviews on the history of Lincoln High are maintained by the Jackson Center in Northside.

Under-used for many years, the old school building was demolished to make way for Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s eleventh elementary school, Northside Elementary, which opened its doors just last fall. The facility, built to sustainable LEED standards, is a model for the 21st century. On display in the building, together with photos from every era of the school’s history, is the 1924 cornerstone. Northside Elementary stands on almost 100 years of commitment to quality public school education in Chapel Hill.

The old stone staircase to the Orange County Training School now leads to Northside Elementary.

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