I continue to be shocked how many people I speak with that have never heard about Rosenwald Schools. It’s truly puzzling that it manages to be overlooked in our American History classes. Last year we mentioned the renovations taking place at the Panther Branch Rosenwald School, just three doors north of Juniper Level Botanic Garden (JLBG). We promised to keep you updated, so here goes.
If you missed our original blog, here is a brief history of the partnership that produced the Rosenwald Schools. In the early part of the 20th century, Sears & Roebuck president, Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) teamed up with renowned African American education leader, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) of the Tuskegee Institute, to try and remedy the chronically underfunded, segregated education system for African American children.
Washington and Rosenwald worked together to fund construction of state-of-the-art middle schools for African American students around the country. Between 1913 and 1932, 5,350 schools (and associated structures) were constructed thanks to a matching grant program (1/3 Rosenwald funds, 1/3 local government funds, and 1/3 community funds) devised and set up by Rosenwald and Washington.
The Rosenwald schools were based on designs by the country’s first accredited black architect, Robert R. Taylor of the Tuskegee Institute. These plans were later standardized by Samuel Smith of the Rosenwald Foundation. Some Rosenwald schools accommodated as many as seven teachers, while others had only one. The schools, which were all conceived to also be used for community functions, were designed based on daylight considerations and the effect on the light on student eye strain. All schools have an east/west orientation, along with pale colored walls and expansive windows.
The 3,000 square foot Juniper Level/Panther Branch Rosenwald School, operated from 1926 until 1956, and is one of only sixty remaining Rosenwald Schools in existence. In their heyday, North Carolina had more Rosenwald Schools than any other state. Now that renovations are complete, the Rosenwald School is available for community events, and at night is used to tutor area students.
Juniper Level Missionary Baptist Church (JLMBC), which owns the Panther Branch Rosenwald School property, was first established in 1870 in a small log building, which continued to expand, culminating in the current main building, which was constructed circa 1920. Other adjacent structures were added later as the church grew.
Visionary Pastor Jeff Robinson of JLMBC has graciously allowed us to become a partner in efforts to improve and strengthen the community of Juniper. In our case, this primarily involves landscape work around the schoolhouse.
In fall 2021, I was blessed wit the opportunity to attend a luncheon at the school with Mrs. Perry, below. Not only was Mrs. Perry, 92, a graduate of the Panther Branch Rosenwald School, but she went on to become a career school teacher. She shared amazing stories of the 200-300 students that attended the Rosenwald School, each walking from miles around. She talked about the amazing sense of community in the Juniper community, which didn’t suffer from the racial barriers that plagued many southern towns. She explained how the first student to school each morning was tasked with starting a fire in the pot-bellied stove that was the sole source of heat on cold mornings.
JLMBC is also a Food Bank distribution site, so the first project for our staff was to build a community garden behind the Rosenwald School, where church members will grow their own organic produce to distribute. We enriched the soil with the same compost we use at JLBG, and worked with the church volunteers, who installed the deer fence.
Step two was the installation of a Magnolia grandiflora hedge between the cemetery behind the school and the adjacent fire station. Due to the narrow strip of land available, we used the naturally narrow selection Magnolia ‘Southern Charm’ (aka Teddy Bear magnolia).
Step 3 was installing foundation plants around the building, which will take a couple of years to fill in.
Step 4 will be the planting of Camellias and Azaleas on the newly built berm on the north side of the school to serve as a screen for the construction of Interstate 540..
Step 5 is to build a nature park/picnic area in a wooded plot adjacent to the vegetable garden. When we began clearing the undergrowth, we found an amazing canopy of trees and a range of moisture regimens that would lend itself to becoming an area for the community to learn and enjoy.
Adjacent to the school, and along Sauls Road, were two large oaks, one red oak, and one live oak. With 54″ diameter trunks, both likely were 100-150 years old, probably dating to the founding of Panther Branch and the construction of JLMBC. Sadly, crews working on the construction of the nearby I-540 decided both should be removed, despite not being anywhere near the highway. Before we knew what was happening and could muscle any resistance, all that remained were two 12′ tall stumps.
Because these trees had great historical significance to both the church and school, we reached out for help in saving a slab from the live oak, which could be preserved and eventually dated. The folks at Bartlett Tree answered our call for help, and volunteered their crew to salvage a slab that we will now cure and prepare for display in the Rosenwald Historical Room. Hooray to Bartlett for their interest in this community project and willingness to help!
As we prepare for our winter open house, The church has agreed to open the Rosenwald School at 9109 Sauls Road for tours during our winter open house hours, which you can find here. Parking is available at the Church on the west side of Sauls Road, as well as the school on the east side of Sauls Road. We hope everyone will take time to stop by this important historical landmark and learn more about the amazing collaboration that created the Rosenwald Schools.