Educating black children: The story of Rosenwald Schools 

And 'The Cornbread Gospels'


Black children in the South in the early part of the 20th century had little chance of receiving any kind of schooling.

The ruling white majority had no interest in seeing them educated and assumed no responsibility for it. In fact, the politics of white supremacy considered black education a positive evil, an astonishing proposition that allowed an artful race-baiter like Arkansas’s immensely popular Jeff Davis to base a successful gubernatorial campaign on the shameful slogan, “Educate a nigger, ruin a good field hand.”

At least two generations of Southern black people came to maturity under that awful yoke. They just didn’t have a chance, and it’s a wonder they were able to get along and get through the vale as well as they did.

A few candles were lit in this great darkness, though, and one of the brightest of them was an ebony-and-ivory partnership between Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago.

Washington devised an education plan for a network of public schools for black children and Rosenwald headed up a money-raising campaign to get those schools built and staffed. Much of the money came from Rosenwald’s own pocket, but he was as tireless and indefatigable a good-cause robber-baron squeezer as the Republic had seen or has seen since.

In a 20-year period from 1912, the so-called Rosenwald Program managed to build and put into operation more than 5,000 schools in the states of the quondam Confederacy. There were 332 of them started in Arkansas, representing an investment of about $2 million. It isn’t known how many children’s lives they slivered with hope, but surely thousands.

A key to the success of the Rosenwald Program –- the initial success and the continued success up nigh to segregation’s demise –- was that it required matching funds from participating communities. If you couldn’t raise enough community interest to match the grants and thwart the Jeff Davises, then you were S.O.L.

Those matching funds, even paltry amounts, represented untold faith, courage and sacrifice, and they were nearly always forthcoming.

The remarkable story of the Rosenwald program is told in “The Rosenwald Schools of the American South,” just out from the University Press of Florida at Gainesville. The author is Mary Hoffschwelle, who teaches history at Middle Tennessee State University. She gives more attention to schoolhouse design and construction, and what went on in the classrooms, than she does to biography, and Rosenwald certainly merits surer rescue from oblivion’s edge.

The book is hardcover, and at $39.95 probably runs about what two years of Rosenwald schooling would have cost one of those lucky kids back when.

Most Arkansas book people know or know of Crescent Dragonwagon, who has a book about cornbread coming out soon from Workman, the New York publishing conglomerate. It’s said to be not just recipes and the usual cookbook chatter; it also enters and explores the existentialism of cornbread, which is a vast, difficult and elusive thing.

Cornbread may be the trickiest of all literary topics. It’s more than just a foodstuff, more than the one comestible that kept sharecropper families alive and sane. It’s the one fully realized Platonic form, the fourth of FDR’s Four Freedoms, and the next-in-line Superman ideal after truth, justice and the American way. It’s much more than the sum of its wedges.

Cornbread is also a Southern staple. It might not have originated in the South but by the middle of the 19th century Southern cooks had advanced the cornbread art so far beyond the gummy mess that blighted appetites in the colder climes that there was no longer any real regional competition.

Mark Twain didn’t say that the difference between Southern and Northern cornbread was the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug, but he said something like that. And you’ll vouch for the continuing truth of the proposition if you’ve foolishly ordered the cornbread at a Minneapolis cafeteria or the Harvard Faculty Club.

The rub here insofar as the new book is that author Dragonwagon is a certified Yankee nowadays, and if it isn’t against the law for a New Englander of good standing to be writing a book about cornbread, it damn well ought to be. There’s melioration, yes, in that Dragonwagon was an Arkansas hillbilly for most of the last 40 years, and spent much of that time as the Natural State’s reigning bed-and-breakfast maven, which involved a grave and considerable cornbread responsibility. But she isn’t a true Daughter of the Confederacy, having been born in New York City, and she is not, as former Times writer Kelley Bass took upon himself to learn in a memorable encounter, one lick of kin to any of the Saline County Dragonwagons.

Workman is rather casual in scheduling publication of its books. Its fall catalogue shows the book as already available, titled “The Cornbread Gospels,” in paperback for $13.95, but there are indications it has been delayed. Your bookseller can keep you apprised.




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