Philanthropist helped fund local African-American school

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By helen e. mckinney


Julius Rosenwald (Aug. 12, 1862-Jan. 6, 1932) was an American businessman, well-known philanthropist and close friend of Booker T. Washington. He may best be remembered as part-owner and founder of Sears, Roebuck and Company, becoming its president in 1909. He is important to Oldham County history because he established the Rosenwald Fund, an entity which donated millions in matching funds to support the education of African-American children in the rural South during the 1920s and 1930s.

Education for African-Americans in the state had always received nominal attention. Prior to 1913, the only funds for black education were those remaining after the collection of taxes in the African-American community. The tax money was first used to satisfy outstanding debts created by an indigent black population. Remaining funds were returned to the community according to the African-American student population.

The La Grange Training School was the ninth school in the state of Kentucky to be built with Rosenwald funds and the only African-American school in Oldham County. Rosenwald School Funds were distributed through grant requests directed by the Tuskegee Institute of which Rosenwald served on the Board of Trustees (his friend Booker T. Washington opened Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama). Funding was given with the stipulation that local communities must raise $1,000 as a matching grant.

The local citizens of La Grange raised the necessary funding and The La Grange Training School was built in 1920-1921 on Hwy 53 North on a two-acre lot in La Grange. The general public raised $4,600 while the African-American community raised $1,000. An old newspaper clipping stated that “it has been well equipped for industrial arts and competent teachers employed.”

The school consisted of three rooms and was used through the early 1960s until the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed and schools became integrated. After completing the first eight years of school, students were bussed 25 miles to the Lincoln Institute in Shelby County to attend high school. Students would often board at the Lincoln Institute and come home on weekends. Oldham County had established the Oldham County Public High School by 1903, but African-American students were not allowed to attend due to segregation rules.

A study entitled “Rosenwald Schools in Kentucky, 1917-1932,” was compiled for The Kentucky Heritage Council and The Kentucky African-American Heritage Commission in 1997 by Alicestyne Turley-Adams. It stated that by the time of Julius Rosenwald’s death approximately 4,977 public schools, 163 shop buildings and 217 teachers’ homes had been built in 883 counties and fifteen southern states at a total cost of over $28 million in contributions and tax revenues.

Kentucky had 158 of these schools built within the state. “It was the first consolidation of public education to allow for a more comprehensive curriculum for African-Americans,” said Dr. Nancy Stearns Theiss, Executive Director of the Oldham County History Center.

The school closed in the mid-1960s and was converted to the First Baptist Church of La Grange. This building burned to the ground in 1990. The church built a new building on the exact location of the former school.

The Oldham County Historical Society has applied for and received an historical marker to remind individuals of the importance of this former school and the students who graduated from it. The public is invited to attend a special Historical Marker Dedication scheduled for Saturday, June 21 at Noon at 419 North First Street in La Grange. Becky Riddle, Kentucky Historical Marker program coordinator, will speak along with other dignitaries including former members from the La Grange Training School.

The marker was funded through Oldham County Tourism and is a part of the statewide historical marker program sponsored by the Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Department of Transportation. The marker will be erected on the front lawn of the First Baptist Church at 419 North First Street. Refreshments will follow the dedication.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald was born on August 12, 1862 to Samuel and Augusta Rosenwald, Jewish immigrants from Germany, in Springfield, Ill. They moved from Baltimore, Md., to Springfield in 1860 and made their fortune in the clothing business during the Civil War. Known as outfitters for the Union troops, they provided quality clothing for military officers and enlisted men during the war.

The Rosenwald home was one block west of the home of their friend, Abraham Lincoln. After his assassination, Julius Hammerslough (Julius Rosenwald’s uncle), undertook the task of raising funds to erect the Lincoln monument in Springfield in honor of President Lincoln. Julius Rosenwald had the task of distributing handbills advertising the sale of The Illustrated Description of the Lincoln Monument prior to the monument unveiling.

Julius Rosenwald went on to marry Augusta Nusbaum of New York in April 1891 and they had five children. Rosenwald was also a large contributor to the Jewish community. Mrs. Rosenwald was as generous as her husband, personally donating her time, money and talents toward aiding the less fortunate of all races and creeds.

Helen E. McKinney, Educator & Genealogist for the Oldham County History Center, can be reached at 502-222-0826 or helen@oldhamcountyhistoricalsociety.org.