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The Selma Rosenwald School at Selma in Drew County was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 2, 2006.


The Selma Rosenwald School is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance under Criterion A for its association with education in the Selma area and Drew County. Additionally, it is significant as a part of Julius Rosenwald’s legacy as the foremost benefactor to Negro education in the South, and as the only surviving Rosenwald school in Drew County.

Contrary to common belief, the education of many southern black Americans took place on southern plantations while many were slaves. Some masters allowed a few of their slaves to become skilled workers or artisans by permitting them to be apprentices or employees of craftsmen outside the plantation. In fact, it was quite profitable for the plantation to have a number of skilled slaves in order to avoid having to hire expensive mechanics, craftsmen, machinists, seamstresses, etc. Education was also taking place among the children, often without the master’s knowledge. Many of the children of the masters thought it quite amusing to play “school” and teach the slave children how to read and do math. To the children it was a game, but in actuality it was part of the beginning of the black education movement in the South after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In fact, many slaves were able to use their talents and skills to gain their manumission, or to do enough work outside the plantation to buy their way out of slavery.

After the Emancipation Proclamation and the flight of the blacks to northern cities, many religious organizations and education-oriented groups realized the need for education among the black refugees. Plantation life had left many blacks unable to cope with life in the city or with finding jobs. Benevolent societies sprang up in cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia in 1862-1863. Together with church organizations, they provided food, clothing, religious leaders, money, and teachers for the newcomers. Church organizations were the leaders in the freedman’s school system in its beginning stages. At the forefront of the religious groups was the American Missionary Association, organized in 1849 to operate Christian missions and educational institutions at home and abroad. Other religious groups included The Baptist Church, North (or Home Mission Society), the Freedman’s Aid Society, and the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church; a great deal of the money and supplies these groups provided were dispensed through the Union Army. In March 1862, the New England Freedman’s Society, along with General Edward L. Pierce and numerous other educators, initiated the Port Royal Experiment. The Experiment involved developing the economy, directing blacks to economic independence, and organizing schools.

In 1863 the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission suggested the creation of a government agency to deal specifically with the care of the freedmen. In 1865 Congress passed an act creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, otherwise known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau was useful because it committed the United States to the task of caring for the freedmen, and because it made that care a part of the official structure by which the South was being controlled. Even though the Freedmen’s Bureau was able to remedy many of the flaws of the relief programs for the freedmen, it was the strongly motivated individuals of the religious groups and benevolent organizations that were mainly responsible for the education of the blacks. These individuals were for the most part devout Christians and well-trained teachers from New England.

One of the zealous individuals that became one of the most significant figures in southern black education was Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald was quite successful as a businessman, but his philanthropic work has always overshadowed his financial success. He entered the clothing business in New York in 1878. In 1895 he invested $35,000 in the stock of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, and in less than thirty years it grew into $150,000,000. He became president of the mail-order firm in 1910 and then chairman in 1925. During the years Rosenwald was most active as a philanthropist, Sears and Roebuck expanded into the retail chain-store business, and he was actually absent from the company from 1916 to 1919. As early as 1910, Rosenwald was a trustee of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and made gifts on behalf of the rural school movement to the Institute, primarily through close contact with Booker T. Washington. His funds made possible the erection of sixteen YMCA buildings and one YMCA building for blacks. This stimulated gifts from others for similar projects in many cities in both the North and South, including the financial support for a large black housing project in Chicago. Rosenwald was active in a number of Jewish organizations and granted substantial financial support to the National Urban League. Also, he was appointed a member of the Council on National Defense and served as chairman of its committee on supplies.

In 1917 Rosenwald established the Julius Rosenwald Fund. This fund was destined to attract more money to the benefit of black education than any other philanthropic undertaking to this date. The fund’s broad purpose was for the betterment of mankind irrespective of race, but it was aimed more specifically at creating more equitable opportunities for black Americans. Unlike many charity organizations, the Rosenwald Fund was to only help a school if the community, blacks and whites alike, had raised some of the money themselves; however, the black community usually provided the labor. Rosenwald and the directors of his trust first directed their attention toward building rural schools, later toward high schools and colleges, and finally toward the providing of grants and fellowships to enable outstanding blacks and whites to advance their careers. Not only did the Rosenwald Fund help to build rural schools, it was also responsible for a number of buildings and libraries on college campuses. The directors of the trust were also involved to a certain extent in the direction of the curriculum at all levels of education. Their emphasis was on the educational needs of country children. They maintained that some vocational skills were necessary, as were the ability to do some math, to read and write clearly, to have some understanding of biological processes and farming, and to understand the fundamentals of sanitation and health.

State records indicate that when the fund ceased activity in 1948, it had aided in the building of 389 school buildings (schools, shops, and teachers’ homes) in 45 counties in Arkansas. The total amount contributed by the fund was $1,952,441. The state or counties owned and maintained all of the schools, and the land was usually donated by a white landowner. In Arkansas, R. C. Childress of Little Rock was the Rosenwald Building Agent. Childress was the first degree graduate of Philander Smith College and was the second black person to work for the state Education Department. He dedicated his life to education and, consequently, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has named Childress Hall for him, and the high schools in Wynne and Nashville were named for him.

The Selma Rosenwald School was built in 1924 when the Rosenwald Fund aided mainly small rural communities in Arkansas. A total of $24,997 was allocated to Arkansas for the 1924-1925 budget year, which allowed the completion of 33 schools, one teachers’ home, and three additions comprising five classrooms. Of the 33 schools completed during that period, 14 of them consisted of two rooms, including the Selma School.

The cost to construct the Selma School was $2,275, and it was one of the cheapest two-room schools constructed during the 1924-1925 budget cycle. (The average cost of construction for a two-room school during the 1924-1925 budget cycle was $3,201.) Of the $2,275 cost of construction, $500 came from black contributions, $1,075 came from public funding, and the Rosenwald Fund gave a grant of $700.

The Selma Rosenwald School was built using Floor Plan No. 20 for a “Two Teacher Community School” from Samuel Smith’s Community School Plans. Smith was the General Field Agent for the Rosenwald Fund, and he developed a series of floorplans and specifications for a variety of schools that used the most up-to-date innovations in school design. The detailed blueprints and specifications could be obtained from the Rosenwald Fund through the state’s education office. Smith felt that having a stock set of blueprints and specifications would allow any community to build a quality school without having to hire an architect, and the school plans turned out to be one of his greatest legacies.

Smith was very concerned with having the maximum amount of natural light get into the classrooms, especially since the rural areas where the buildings were built often did not have electricity. The Selma School, as specified in the plans, faces west in order to allow east-west sunlight into the rooms. East-west sunlight allowed a more comfortable light (as opposed to an all-day exposure to southern sunlight), and also allowed for better ventilation since shades would not be needed to cover the windows all day long.

The interior specifications for the buildings that Smith designed also helped to maximize the use of sunlight. Specifications required tan shades on the interior, instead of the more traditional green, and preferred that two shades be installed per window, in order to allow more regulation of light. The schools were also designed so that seating arrangements placed the windows on the children’s left sides so that their writing arms, at least for right-handed students, would not cast shadows on their papers. Smith’s plans were meant to be simple and efficient, omitting corridors wherever it was possible, and Floor Plan No. 20 used in Selma reflects all of Smith’s innovations.

The design chosen for the Selma Rosenwald School, like the other school designs that Smith did for the Rosenwald Fund, also incorporates an industrial room. The inclusion of an industrial room reflected part of Booker T. Washington’s Progressive-era educational philosophy. It allowed girls to be taught sewing and cooking, and boys to be taught farming and working with tools.

Smith also recognized that school buildings often served as community centers, and he incorporated that ideal into his designs. He once wrote that, “the best modern school is one which is designed to serve the entire community for twelve months in the year…whenever possible a good auditorium, large enough to seat the entire community, should be erected in connection with every community school. If there are not sufficient funds for an auditorium, two adjoining classrooms with movable partitions may be made to serve this purpose.” As a result, all of Smith’s school designs had an auditorium or movable partitions, as at the Selma School.

With respect to the exterior of frame buildings, Smith recommended that they be painted white and trimmed in gray or painted gray and trimmed in white. If the community wanted to use a wood preservative stain, he recommended using a nut-brown color and trimming it with white or cream. A photograph of the Selma Rosenwald School Class of 1924 indicates that the building was painted white with dark trim, likely gray, as Smith recommended.

The siting of the building was also considered to be very important, and Smith provided recommendations on that regard. It was recommended that buildings be built on at least a two-acre site, and be located near a corner of the site. This allowed enough space for the school, two privies, a teacher’s home, playgrounds for the students, a space for agricultural demonstrations, and proper landscaping. At Selma, the privies were located to the northeast of the building while the playground equipment was located to the building’s west and the baseball field was located to the east.

The Selma Rosenwald School had classes for students up through 10th grade and was used as a school until 1964. Once the school closed, the Masons bought the building in the late 1960s or early 1970s for use as their Masonic lodge, and they continue to use it today. There is also an effort currently ongoing to transfer the building from the Masons to the Selma Community so that it can be used for community events and functions.

Schools, especially Rosenwald schools, along with churches were often the centerpieces of a community, and it was no exception in Selma. Located across the road from the Sweet Hope Church, the Selma Rosenwald School was the center of life in this rural part of Drew County not only while it was a school, but for several years after. Even today, it serves as the Masonic Lodge for the area, and as the only Rosenwald building surviving in Drew County, the Selma Rosenwald School is a rare and tangible reminder of the philanthropic legacy of Julius Rosenwald.

The Selma Rosenwald School is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance under Criterion A for its association with education in the Selma area and Drew County. Additionally, it is significant as a part of Julius Rosenwald’s legacy as the foremost benefactor to Negro education in the South, and as the only surviving Rosenwald school in Drew County.